Monday, 29 October 2012

Sgurr Thuilm & Sgurr non Coireachan

Several friends were staying at the Glenfinnan Sleeping Car last weekend so I decided to join them. When I was first told about the trip I wasn't too well up financially so wanted to make it as cheap as possible. I have no annual leave left, just a few hours time in lieu and it is a long and expensive drive for what could be just one day on the hills with no guaranteed weather. The friends I was meeting in Glenfinnan kindly offered me various places they could pick me up on the way which helped me to narrow down my destinations and timetable. The plan was to climb the two Munros behind Glenfinnan viaduct Sgurr Thuilm and Sgurr nan Coireachan. The route involves a lengthy walk in along a track road before a challenging horseshoe walk of two Munros. We therefore decided we would all take our bikes so we could cycle in to Corryhully Bothy and leave the bikes there, shortening the walking distance. This meant I couldn't fly unless I rented a bike from Fort William and the flight prices weren't as competitive as the train. I booked myself on a Friday afternoon train to Glasgow then Bowling, where it was convenient for me to be picked up, and a Sunday evening train back to Manchester from Dumbarton. I typed in Virgin Cycle Policy on Google and found the following information which recommends booking the bike on the trains, however it does not say that it is compulsory. I had very little spare time due to a busy week at work, being away the weekend before and heading to Mallorca next weekend. Unfortunately I didn't find the time to book the bike on and instead took the risk which I often do with other rail companies I regularly can see where this is going can't you?

First page I came to when looking for the Virgin Cycle Policy

Friday was a busy day as I had to cycle to work and be there by 7am as I had swapped shifts with one of the lads so I could leave early. It was raining and windy and I had a heavy rucksack with the weekends gear as well as clothes for work and cycling in. I managed to leave at 2pm as planned and followed the tram tracks through town to Piccadilly, not because I don't know the way but because you are guaranteed less traffic lights and better surface. When I boarded the train at Piccadilly I had to point out to several people that the cycle area with the big cycle area sign is actually for cycles, not their luggage. The train to Preston was fairly busy. Being pushed against the window with my bike wasn't too bad as the view included one to Winter Hill and Rivington Pike backed by blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I looked at the train tickets and realised that Trainline had put me on a train leaving Preston on a different platform just two minutes after the train I was on would arrive. It's about time Trainline built a connection time option into their system. Older people and those less able or with small children have no chance of making some of these short connections. So at Preston I made sure I got my bike ready and in front of everyone else. The doors opened and around a hundred people all now aware of the situation ran down the platform towards the footbridge. I made it over the footbridge, greasing everyone around me with bike parts, made it to the front door of the train with the cycle sign and then Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Trains appeared and the fun started.

Glenfinnan Sleeping Car

As I stood waiting for three fellow cyclists to disembark from the cycle area Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Trains put his hand in front of my chest and asked if I had booked my bike on the train. I replied by telling him I hadn't, but guessed there was room as the three fellow cyclists were disembarking. He replied by telling me that it is compulsory to book your bike on a Virgin Train. I told him I didn't think it was as I hadn't read so on the website, it was recommended but not compulsory and I often use other rail companies like Northern Rail and Trans Pennine Trains who recommend booking but it isn't compulsory. He refused to let me on the train. I told him I clearly misread or misunderstood the policy, it was the first time I was using a Virgin Train with my bike and agreed that if anyone with a booking came on the train I would get off. He still refused to let me on the train. I asked if he could make an exception this one time as there was clearly enough room for three bikes as three had just got off. He still refused to let me on. I told Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Trains how many times I have had to sit in a corridor by the toilets when travelling on Virgin Trains despite paying a lot of money for a ticket and explained that sometimes with customer service there is a little give and take, could he not make an exception for me as I had people waiting for my arrival in Glasgow. Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Trains refused to let me on. I started getting angry at this point, I was angry with myself for not booking the bike on but also extremely angry that we could not come to a compromise. The train started moving off and I was left stranded at Preston. I was so angry I needed to take my anger out on something. Not wanting a night in jail I decided against an attempted decapitation of Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Trains and instead punched my bike seat which in turn broke my light fitting and grazed my knuckles.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

I must have looked a right petulant idiot to onlookers. I made my way to the staff in the Virgin office at the station and I must say that every single member of Virgin Trains staff I dealt with from this moment on were very helpful and empathetic. The nice lady in the office gave me a cycle reservation for the next train in an hours time and marked my single ticket to let the inspector know why I was travelling on a different train. I texted Elaina to let them know I would be at least an hour late arriving in Glasgow. I say at least as the other complication to this journey was that the over head power lines between Carlisle and Glasgow were not working due to a technical fault. Luckily there are still diesel locomotives running on the line but it meant I would have to disembark from the electric train at Carlisle and board a diesel instead. Elaina texted back, said not to worry and that they would meet me in Glasgow instead of at Bowling. I boarded the next train an hour later, left the bike in the cycle area and made my way to a comfortable seat to rest and calm down. The views out of the train were great as the sun was setting as we sped through Cumbria. The setting sun was hitting the Howgills, one of my favourite sights from a car window and just as spectacular from the train window. Unfortunately there was a delay getting into Carlisle which added another half hour. We stopped next to a quiet allotment on the outskirts of Carlisle, there was no human activity on the allotment but plenty of wildlife. I watched a Sparrow Hawk glide between bushes and trees stalking small birds. The skies over the small council estate behind the allotment had that orange glow of a low autumn sunset. Darkness fell then we finally moved into Carlisle station. As I was stood by my bike behind the drivers cab waiting for him to let us off the train the driver appeared and I kid you not he said to me "Do you know if we have to swap trains?". The driver himself had no idea what was going on! We did have to swap trains, though the driver had to go find a Virgin trains representative to find out this information and find out where the diesel train was that he had to now drive to Glasgow. The platform was a complete mess with no instructions for passengers on where they should go to, no Virgin staff and as the train wasn't a scheduled train it didn't appear on the boards. I hate to think how many people didn't actually find the train.

Corryhully Bothy in Glen Finnan

I followed the driver to the new train and boarded with my bike in the cycle area behind the drivers cab at the front of the train. After securing my bike I found a comfy seat with power outlets. The driver came over the speaker system to let us know that the train was now due to arrive in Glasgow Central at 19:50. This wasn't good as Elaina and Steve had already waited over two hours extra for me in Glasgow and I felt really bad about making them wait. The train was quick and didn't make any stops between Carlisle and Glasgow. It was dark so there wasn't much sight seeing to be had. The only thing I did spot was a silhouette of Tinto as we crossed the Southern Uplands. When the train passed through Motherwell I texted Elaina to let them know I would be there soon. I got off the train at Glasgow Central and made my way up the platform to find Elaina, Steve and Jen who had met them for a coffee whilst they waited for me. Steve had parked on the street in Glasgow city centre so we were soon at the car. Elaina and Steve looked like they were in a Krypton Factor final as they struggled to get my bike on the cycle carrier as well as their own. We dropped Jen off near her flat and grabbed a quick pizza each to eat in the car. Due to the delay we estimated that we probably wouldn't get to Glenfinnan until around midnight. Then the motorway was closed at the point where it rounds the airport runway so we had to take a divert through Erskine adding even more time to the journey. The A82 was empty all the way to Fort William so we made up good time as Steve travels this way so often he knows each bend like the back of his hands. The only time he took his eyes off the road was at Luss when a big Owl flew across our path. We stopped for a toilet break at Crianlarich then made no more stops despite Steve asking several times "Anyone fancy a pint at the Clachaig". We arrived at the Sleeping Car in Glenfinnan at midnight. Maria, Milly and Robin had all gone to bed already. Robin and Milly had long journeys up the days before and Maria had climbed dozens and dozens of Munros in the past few weeks. This weekend was Maria's last weekend of a three week trip to the Highlands, which to be honest was a blessing for the rest of us as she would at least be a little tired! Instead of going straight to bed ourselves which would have been the sensible thing to do, Steve who can be a bad influence persuaded me to stay up and have a rather tasty bottle of Ale.

Robin above gully on caption Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich

My bed was a bunk in the old sleeping compartments. To get to the sleeping compartments you have to walk down one of those old narrow railway carriage corridors that anyone of a certain age will remember. It was all very Hogwarts Express so the others caught me a few times stood in the corridor waving an imaginary wand shouting "Expecto Patronum". As I fell asleep high up on my bunk I noticed old British Rail symbols on vents and other parts of the old carriages interior. After the stress of wanting to punch Mr Jobsworth Joe of Virgin Rail earlier on the day I fell asleep dreaming of how it would have turned out if I had actually totally lost it and decapitated him. When my alarm woke me at 7:45am I shot up and nearly smacked my head on the low curved ceiling. Half awake and not too sure where I was, for a moment I feared I was in a jail cell and it wasn't a dream after all! After the initial panic I looked down to see that I was in my down sleeping bag which I'm fairly sure Strangeways prison would not let me have in my cell. I took a look out of the steamed up single glazed window to find that the weather was absolutely pish. I said the night before that there was no way I was going to make all the effort to get up there and not stick to the plan of climbing the two Munros whatever the weather. Luckily Maria, Robin and Milly all still wanted to climb them too. I don't blame Steve, Elaina and Zoe for staying behind and finding alternatives as it really was pish. I geared up but was missing one vital piece of gear, I had planned to use my bike water bottle as a water bottle when hiking but I stupidly left it on the bike the night before. Its disappearance explained the loud thud we heard as Steve was hurtling along the A82 by Loch Lomond.

Milly, Maria & Robin on Sgurr nan Coireachan summit

We set off in three to four season attire and wet weather clothing. We cycled down hill along the A830 into Glenfinnan then turned left along the track that follows the north western side of the River Finnan to the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Cycling in boots wasn't comfy and my gaiter straps were getting caught up in my chain wheels. The Glenfinnan Viaduct is a huge sweeping bridge of concrete arches set amongst the most dramatic highland scenery. In recent years it has found fame in the Harry Potter movies with the Hogwarts Express chugging across it or a Ford Anglia flying under its arches. I love the Harry Potter books and movies so stopped to take photos of the viaduct. On the other side of the viaduct the track follows the River Finnan through Glen Finnan. It was a pleasant scene as the trees were turning their autumn colours and the river was full after the recent rains. The cycling was easy as the track was more of a tarmac road most of the way. We were stopped in our tracks as we approached a Landrover by the side of the road. An armed stalker and a party of men wearing tweed came down to the track to ask where we were planning on walking. I expected a confrontation but it was all very civilised. We told the stalker our plans and they agreed kindly to look out for us and make sure they knew of our presence. The stalker who was in good spirits walked to the back of the group where I was stood with my bike and looked at my bright red waterproof. He said "This red coat is very bright, could easily be mistaking for a Red Deer". Picking on Jamie is a past time that is always enjoyed on our regular meets, but being picked on by an armed man was definitely a first. He then humoured the others by placing one of his target sheets on my back. I of course stood there with a look of shock on my face, much to the amusement of my so called friends! We said good bye to the friendly stalker and carried on along the track until we reached Corryhully Bothy.

Milly, Robin and Maria on Meall an Tarmachain

We left our bikes locked up in Corryhully Bothy. I don't usually think of bothies as comfy to be honest and don't really get their charm as others do, but given the weather outside staying in the confines of the bothy would have been a comfy option on this occasion. We set off on foot along the track which was again fairly easy, until we reached the ford over the Allt a' Choire Charnaig where the rain had left us with a half foot deep fording of the river or a slippery stone hopping. I had to borrow Milly's walking poles at this point and made a right pigs ear of it. It didn't help that I looked ahead of me to see that Robin had been the man I was supposed to be and just walked straight through the river. Around two hundred metres after the ford we turned left up a faint path that was signposted Sgurr nan Coireachan. The boggy path was clear at first then faded as we got higher.  The path swung left then right before a short scramble then topped out on the ridge at a flat area where we ate lunch. After a bite to eat we put on our hat and gloves and made our way up the first top of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich. On the map this looked like a straight forward simple slog up a ridge but in reality the south east ridge of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich was a huge steep bulk. Luckily a path skirts it to the left and makes a steady ascent through a boulder field before topping out on its south east ridge. We didn't stick around on the summit and made our way north in the direction of Sgurr nan Coireachan. There was a huge drop down a deep gully on the right hand side of the path just north of the summit that would be a very dangerous spot in winter. A walk across many tiny lochans on An Craigean took us to the foot of the final ascent to the summit of Sgurr nan Coireachan. I kept thinking it must be beautiful up here in good weather as there are tiny lochans and fascinating rock formations all over the ridge. Today however it just looked eerie and I was glad to be with company.

Robin and Myself on Sgurr Thuilm summit

We finally reached the summit of Sgurr nan Coireachan. It was windy but the rain had died off and the cloud ceiling above us seemed to be getting brighter with a slightly blue tinge to it. We took a few photos in the stone shelter that encircles the trig point pillar. I thought we would be alone the whole day so was surprised to find two blokes sheltering on the northern side of the summit. We sat with them and ate a few essential snacks. They had come up from the Glen Pean bothy where they were staying the night. Maria and Milly in particular took a shining to the two of them. The blokes had a lucky escape as Robin and myself dragged the two of them away! Whilst we were on the summit the cloud opened for a short periods and gave us fabulous views down to Loch Morar. We set off along the ridge towards Sgurr Thuilm. I expected this to take only half an hour at the most but the undulating ridge seem to go on forever. We crossed over the first major bump of Meall an Tarmchain then crossed a col towards Beinn Garbh which is about half way between Sgurr nan Coireachan and Sgurr Thuilm.

Descending Sgurr Thuilm
After a hard week at work and very little sleep the night before I was struggling to stay awake at times and was a right grumpy so and so moaning about the undulating ridge and the pish weather. A few rare glimpses into a beautiful Glen Pean and wild Coire Tollaidh lifted my spirits from time to time but not the clouds. It was about this time that Maria started moaning about her wet feet, something she reminded us of every twenty minutes or so, "Did I tell you I don't like wet feet" became the catchphrase of the day! She had only had the boots for a month and they were leaking, but to be fair to the manufacturer they had been what we call "Maria'd!". In the past three weeks she had done what would be for most people a years worth of mountain walking. We passed over Beinn Garbh and as we did our spirits lifted massively when all of a sudden Milly shouted "Look Brocken Spectres!". We looked to the left and to our delight each of us had our own Brocken Spectre. Milly who despite many more hill days than me had never been fortunate enough to see one, was extremely giddy. It was great sharing such a fantastic moment with her. Feeling slightly more positive we made our way across yet another col then crossed the small bump at Bealach Leathann. Looking ahead now there was another big bump which surely had to be Sgurr Thuilm. I convinced myself it was but then as I made my way to the summit of this bump it became obvious it wasn't and was simply the 858m bump before Sgurr Thuilm. I was in the middle of a good moan again then looked to the left to see a family of several Ptarmigan happily walking around on the rocks.

Dining Area in the Glenfinnan Sleeping Car

We eventually gained the summit of Sgurr Thiulm after following the old metal fence posts then turning left up its south ridge. The summit was cold and windy and there were no views. We didn't stick around long and headed south descended the south ridge of Sgurr Thuilm. With Maria still moaning about her wet feet we descended the long ridge of Druim Coire a' Bheithe. The ridge was very boggy in its latter stages and covered in that horrible slippery grass that often requires what we call the "Ass Crampon". At one point Robin took a spectacular fall that involved him doing a rather impressive backwards somersault over a wee boulder. As we descended Druim Coire a' Bheithe we dropped below the cloud line and the atmospheric views up Glen Finnan were awesome. We reached the end of the track we left earlier and made our way back to Corryhully Bothy. The ford over the Allt a' Choire Charnaig had half the water it had several hours earlier, we could see rocks that when we passed earlier were under water. We picked up the bikes from Corryhully Bothy and cycled back along the track to Glenfinnan stopping twice to watch Red Deer and also to take a few snaps of the viaduct. At one point there was a Red Deer stag running through the field parallel to me and it kept going at the same speed as me for a few minutes until it disappeared into the forest. Most of us walked back up the hill to the Sleeping Car but Milly showed us all up and cycled her way to the top. After a welcome hot shower we all made our way to the Lochailort Inn for a tasty meal and drinks. I have never been in the Lochailort Inn before but will definitely go back as it had great food and a really good atmosphere. On the way to the Lochailort Inn Steve did well to avoid two Red Deer that strolled across the A830 right in front of the car without a care in the world. After a tasking day it wasn't long before we were all in bed again. The next day Steve, Elaina and myself made our way slowly along the A82 back to Glasgow, of course via the excellent Real Food Cafe.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...


  1. You think bikes are tricky on trains... Try a coffin! Nightmare!

    I hope you got that man's name. Write a letter of complaint to Virgin and make sure you give them the idiot's name. Make his life hell.

    Your train ticket pays for his wages. You are the customer. Worth ten minutes to give the little shit an hour or so of hell from his manager.


  2. An excellent posting, Jamie. Good to see you getting out and about, even if not as adventurous as walking home from work along the canal towpath?!