Ruadh Awakenings

New rule #1: Be careful what you agree to after 5 pints of Guinness. It was during the fifth pint at the Cricketers Inn, Greasby on the Wirral during an OUGS weekend last November, that my erstwhile walking pal Keith suggested a trip to Scotland to bag a few Munros.

Fast forward a few months and I’m in Keith’s house discussing the route. We settle on a walk from Corrie Halle to Poolewe, taking in a possible six munro summits. It’s a long eight-hour drive to Poolewe which we split, but the traffic is light and the roads are good, and we arrive to a gorgeous evening, sunny and still.

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The plan is to leave the car in Poolewe and somehow get round the peninsular to the start point. A taxi might be expensive. Our first call is to the Post Office, where the nice lady tells us a bus will leave at 8.05 the next morning from the stop just outside the PO. We are in luck because the bus only starts here on alternate days. Now we need a place to stay for the night. There is a campsite marked on the Ordnance Survey map, but we arrive to find that it is closed until Easter. We had spotted a sign for Creagan B&B, so we try our luck there. The proprietress is swayed by Keith’s wobbly bottom lip and she shifts the grandkids (who have come for a ceilidh in the local hall). With our orders for breakfast taken we retire to the local pub for some more Guinness and dinner. Haddock and chips, salad, and chocolate pudding with ice cream for only £5. Stonking value. The slow walk back to the B&B takes place under the darkest skies and the best display of stars I have ever seen.

The next morning the enormous “Full Scottish” breakfast takes longer to eat than we anticipate. (Keith declined the Black Pudding, I declined the fried eggs). So we hurriedly put boots on and grab rucksacks trekking poles and other paraphenelia, and scoot around to the Bus Stop where we meet a pair of walkers who did a similar walk in reverse, parking at the Dundonnell Hotel and walking to Poolewe, only they didn’t realise that the bus took different routes on different days and had an enforced extra day in Poolewe. The bus, an elderly coach, is also stunning value at £3.50 (probably subsidised to help the local community) Interesting cross-section of fellow travelers, including the obligatory stereotypical Scottish drunk. At 9 AM we are deposited at Corrie Hallie and given a cheery send-off by the bus driver. As we stand there putting our waterproofs on, the fine evening having given way to a grey drizzly morning with a rising breeze, a car pulls up. The inhabitants unload mountain bikes – their plan is to bike along a track used by deer stalkers before leaving the bikes for an ascent of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh (Hill of the Sword).

Keith and I start up off the track while the bikers are still assembling their rides. We try and make the most of having a track to follow – there aren’t many around these parts. After a while we pass an abandoned Argo Conquest, an eight wheeled vehicle used by game keepers, eventually the bikers pass us, it is a really rough track and the cycling is as hard as walking. Later we pass the bikes laid in the heather, their owners now on foot. As we descend towards the river, we can see a couple of people on the other bank. Eventually we reach the river, further upstream, and gingerly wade across. The water level is low but care is taken, and cameras are poised for any duckings. Then the long, long ascent of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh begins. No path to follow, it is a relentless climb searching for the easiest route among loose boulders, the stiffening breeze is very cold, the sunshine is very hot. Ptarmigan and Hares in white winter coats are glimpsed sitting among the rocks. At the bottom of a patch of snow we meet the bikers descending. The climb continues, the summit hidden by a succession of convex slopes until the summit is eventually gained. However it has taken us far longer than anticipated, so after a brief photo opportunity we head off down to the col to begin the assault on Sgurr Ban. As we ascend the weather deteriorates, and in the distance we see a group of people descending a snow field on snowboards. The last people we will see on the hills this weekend.

It’s now late and we have to quickly find a location to camp for the night, so we drop down to Corrie Nan Clach, with Sgurr Ban on one side Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair (Summit of the corrie of Mcfarquar) on the other, find a flattish piece of ground and pitch the tent in the ever rising wind. Before the tent is up a gust has caused it to flip a peg, never to be found, so a rock is employed to hold down that corner of the tent. The pegs keep finding rocks just below the surface but eventually the tent is erected and we tumble inside, sleeping mats and bags are deployed, wet clothing swapped for dry. Dinner is delayed so we can have a nap. Dinner when it is cooked is rice, supplemented with nuts and apricots, pudding is a chocolate bar and a mug of hot chocolate. I’ve been using a Katadyn Sport Bottle with a built-in filter to “live off the land” however that meant stopping and getting it from my ‘sac, with the result I haven’t been drinking enough and am very dehydrated. Keith has fared better, using a bladder system, though it meant a larger initial weight.

Plans for day two are re-assessed, we will aim to ascend Ruadh Stac Mor (Big Red Stack) and A’ Mhaighdean (The Maiden) before the walk out to Poolewe. The wind is now howling and tugging at the tent as we try and sleep, I attempt to avoid sliding down the tent and onto Keith, he tries to avoid a large rock. Not much sleep is to be had as the tent material flaps like gunshots and heels hard over. First light and we agree the weather precludes any more summits – we’ll find a relatively low level walk out. I later find out that wind velocities of 55mph were recorded locally at lower elevations, the wind up here would have been considerably stronger.

Cereal bars form a rapid breakfast, and camp is struck, the tent poles are now bent out of shape. We try to ascend back to the col, but the vicious wind batters every step. The rain cover is torn from my rucksack and vanishes, I just manage to avoid a dangerous tumble. Back at the col we decide the other side is too steep to descend safely in this weather. We will have to start walking 180 degrees in the wrong direction in order to skirt around the mountains. Carefully picking our way down and around the flanks of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, checking our position on maps and two GPS units takes a long time. At one point we are about to head off towards the confluence of two streams until I take a bearing and we realise that would take us south and not west as we intend. Finding a stalkers path leading west we follow until a large lochan comes into view. But which one? The area is covered by three Ordnance Survey maps, the one that covers our current location is the only paper map – the rest are laminated. In taking the paper map out of its cover to turn it over it has become soaked to destruction and the wind whips half of it away. Fortunately it is not a half we need. With the assistance of my GPS we decide that it is Lochan Fada, and that we are a lot further south than intended. A very long slog along the side of the lochan, staying high enough on the slopes of Beinn Tharsuinn Chaol to avoid the marsh along the shore is called for. It is already well into the afternoon and we have a long long way to go. There is no track to follow so we contour along, battered by the unrelenting rain. A long while has passed since I felt I couldn’t take another step. We can either walk out or try and shelter for another night, which will trigger an alert when we are missed at the B&B and by the folks back home who are expecting news. There are no bothies near enough to easily reach so all we would be able to do is re-pitch the tent and sit out the night.

By 4 PM we have reached the head of the lochan and we follow a stream up over Gleann Tulacha, before dropping down to Fionn Loch, hoping to find the stalkers track which will lead (eventually) to Poolewe. At 7.15 as the last light dies we find the track, and see the silhouettes of deer by the shore. The only deer that I see all weekend. Now on one of the laminated maps, we check out the route. We have a long way still to go, the rain continues to fall and wind to howl, it feels like your face is being shot-blasted. Beyond exhaustion we put our head torches on and strike off along the track, the dim shapes of hills and shore vanish into total blackness, only the rain and a small section of track in front is illuminated by our lights. We know the path splits at several points, not wanting any detours we take extra care to check that we are on the right path. At one point it swings in a direction not apparent on the map and we arrive at a wide river. Not wanting to ford it unnecessarily, we retrace our steps, take a GPS reading, take an alternative route for a few hundred meters, then take another GPS reading, which suggests we were right initially, so it’s back to the river and a hesitant crossing in calf-deep water. Gaining the other side we walk a few hundred metres before another GPS check reassures that we are on the right path. And on and on and on and ever onwards, slogging through the dark, hoping to gain the cover of the forest at Kernsary. 9PM comes and goes, 10PM. Then eventually we come to a high fence and a gateway. Through the fence and into the woods, some shelter finally from the elements. We switch mobile phones on. No Signal. Walking on down the hill, finally a signal. Call the B&B, they offer to drive up the track to the keepers cottages at the edge of Kernsary Forest. It’ll save us two hours. Keith calls home. At 11 PM we pass through another gate and see the lights of the car. Roddy our saintly saviour is waiting. We divest wet waterproofs and load ruck sacks and poles into the car boot. In the warmth of the car I start shivering. We bump down the track. Mairi and Roddy have been up to the forest twice tonight already, looking for us. Soon we are back at the B&B, Roddy produces hot soup, hot baths are taken. We fall asleep watching the TV waiting to digest the meal. At 1.30 AM we wake up and climb into bed. Sleep descends immediately.

The following morning, Mairi chats to us over breakfast, she takes a phone call, which is from someone else in the village, asking if the lost men have been found. Seems like the whole village knew about our plight. Mairi is involved in organising The Great Wilderness Challenge, which raises funds for the Highland Hospice and is no stranger to the hills herself. We realise that when we set off, she didn’t even know our names, in the event of our non-return all she could have done was to pass the Number Plate of Keith’s car to the police.

Eventually we pack the car and start the long trek home, swapping the driving and briefly pausing for a photo opportunity (Slioch) and lunch in a service area car-park, at 8 PM we finally arrive back at Keith’s house for an emotional reunion with Keith’s wife and children.

We didn’t get all six. There is always next time. At no time did I feel in any mortal danger. We had sufficient equipment, food and clothing to have spent another night out, it was our choice to get back to the B&B on the second night purely in order to prevent alarm to the folks back home.

With deepest thanks to Mairi and Roddy MacKenzie.

~ by @mmonyte on March 27, 2009.

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