On Thursday 23rd of February I made the long journey north to Fort William. Arriving at a chalet that a friend and his family had rented for a break in Glen Nevis at about 10:20pm.
“What are we doing tomorrow then Steve?” I asked.
“Golden Oldy on Aonach Mor I reckon. I’ve done it before. Great route.” replied Steve.
“Sounds good to me”.
We had a beer and looked at the guidebook, discussed the kit we’d need and what time we were getting up.
“The first gondola up the mountain is at 8am. If we’re up for 6:30 that should give us plenty of time” With that, we went to bed.
Friday dawned calm and partly clear, the snow-covered mountains clearly visible and we drove to the Nevis Range car park. We arrived in plenty of time for the first Gondola with only a few other mountaineers for company. At the top station, we turned right and walked towards the approach for the Western face of the mountain. After a short while we parted company with Thomas, Steve’s son who was out for a walk over to Aonach Beag. We descended into the valley between Aonach Mor and Carn Dearg Meadhonach the ground was deep with powdery snow which had fallen the day before. We trod carefully in the footsteps of the other mountaineers in front of us, who in turn were following the footsteps of people the day before. This must have saved us a lot of energy as when we parted company we were soon thigh deep in powder.
The final approach to the bottom of Golden Oldy was hard work; energy sapping snow, post-holing every few steps. We stopped on the lower reaches to put on crampons, harnesses, helmets and retrieve ice axes from our packs.
Setting off up to the climb we separated from the other climbers. They had said they were going to do Golden Oldy too so we were a little surprised. Whether they had changed their minds or just taken the wrong route we didn’t know. What we did know is that they were heading up Gendarme Ridge.
After a short while of solo climbing we stopped in a corner to get the rope out and pitch up. Looking left I saw the other climbers abseiling back off their route. When we’d got ourselves sorted we were off again, climbing up onto the boulders that make up the route. The climbing was slow and difficult. Hindered by soft snow covering the route and crumbling away underfoot everything took too much time.
Steve led a few pitches, I led a pitch, Steve took over again. By now the wind was picking up and some of the more exposed sections felt a lot more challenging. Looking off either side of the ridge it would have been a long drop that I didn’t want to experience.
Eventually we got to the final snow slope. We put away the rope and finished the route. By now it was about 5pm. We knew we’d missed the last gondola back down the mountain but thought we were but a couple of hours from the car.
Climbing onto the summit plateau we were immediately battered by strong winds. Whiteout conditions. We stowed the axes, got out walking poles and checked the map. “North. If we head north we should encounter the ski runs and from there the top gondola station”. We set off following the compass, but careful not to get too close to the western edge. I knew the summit plateau kept a fairly consistent gradient for a Km or two in the direction we wanted to go. After a while, maybe fifteen minutes, I called Steve to stop because the ground seemed to fall away more steeply than I had expected. We stopped and I took the map from my pocket. The wind tore the map from my hand and it sailed from view. “Noooo!” We backed away from the unexpected slope a little way. Steve was about six metres from me and moving south. I shouted to him but he couldn’t hear me over the wind. I turned and followed him.
A few moments later I was falling.
I thought I had just slipped into a little dent in the ground but I kept falling. For what seemed like an age I fell, spinning and rolling. I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought I was slowing down I’d hit a bump and fall further. I bashed my head on a rock. The helmet made a sickening bang. I was glad to be wearing it. A voice in my head said, ever so calmly, “Well. This is it then”. I thought that was me done for, that I was about to die.
There was no panic, just resignation to the fact that there was nothing I could do.
Eventually I stopped. Surprised to be alive I felt my arms, legs and chest. Everything seemed to be in the right place. I wasn’t in great pain. I felt my face. It was wet. Was it blood? Was I smashed up? I tasted the liquid, it was just water. I realised I had lost my Leki pole in the fall. I began to laugh and shouted into the storm “I’ve found Coire an Lochan!” Steve heard my laughter and began to approach me. He was much higher than me and descending to meet me. I didn’t know at the time that he had fallen too. He slipped about 30m. I had gone about 100m down towards the lochan. We both had our axes out now and began to climb out of the Coire.
After a short while climbing, a crack opened in the snow above us. It looked just like someone had unzipped the snow. Slowly at first and then all of a sudden quickly a windslab avalanche came crashing over me. I hung onto my axe and managed to stick to the slope. After a few deep breaths I carried on. Another unzip. Another avalanche. I couldn’t hang on this time and went crashing back down the slope. Not too far, but scary, nevertheless. One more try. Almost to the top this time. Unzip. Crash. We were sent tumbling down the slope. Snow rolling over us. We came to a rest and Steve had been caught by my crampon spikes as we fell together. He was in pain but we didn’t think badly injured.
Climbing out was no longer an option. We tried to traverse below the crags to continue our journey north and off the mountain.
The snow was too deep, too loose. It was dark now and we were soaking wet. Our only option was to get to safe ground and get in the bothy bag that I was carrying. We walked down the slopes, their angle getting easier. Soon we were at the edge of the lochan. Hard to see as it was frozen and covered in fresh snow. We found a large boulder that we thought might offer some protection from the howling wind. We threw our packs down and got out the bothy bag and climbed in.
Steve’s take on the accident:
5.38pm Jay turns north and he’s gone.
Just like that – one second he’s there the next gone. I don’t have a clue where, perhaps he headed down a gentle slope, maybe he walked further back, perhaps he’s just fallen over a cliff and is dead or horribly injured. What do you do when your partner has just fallen over a cliff? Leave him! I had to have a look, so I did.
I’m falling – time has stood still. I’m dead. Simple as that. I’m free falling trying to plunge my pathetic walking pole in to ice. There’s no fear; why should there be? I’m dead and there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve let everyone down with some stupid, stupid useless hobby. All my family, all my friends. I hit snow and roll once, then I stop. I’m alive. I stand up.
Visibility still pretty poor, I could still be a few feet from a massive cliff face. What about Jay – did he fall? If he did he must be dead. Maybe he didn’t fall! Perhaps he’s still up there, the spindrift just hid him for a moment. I’m totally alone. Jay’s lying dead down the mountain, I can’t find him and I don’t know where I am. It’s nearly dark but there’s hardly any wind, I’m on the lee slope. I move down a few feet and the mist is clearing. I can see huge dark cliffs to one side but it’s a gully. Yes, we managed to fall down a gully – two miles of 300 foot cliffs and we chose to fall down a gully. Maybe Jay is down there. I start shouting. Nothing. Then incredibly I see him and he’s laughing. He’s 200 feet below me and he’s laughing. He’s laughing because he’s alive, he’s not even injured.
We hadn’t managed to stop for lunch on the climb and by now we were starving. It was about 8pm by this point. We ate our lunch and drank the flask of now lukewarm coffee. We discussed our options. Given the weather and our own conditions the best course of action was to sit tight in the bothy bag and wait until morning. We knew Steve’s wife and son would be missing us and would have most likely raised the alarm with mountain rescue so we needed to get the message out that we were safe.
I called 999 and was put through to the Police in Fort William. We explained who we were, what had happened, gave our location and told them that our plan was to sit tight. “Do you have food? Are your clothes wet? Have you spent a night out like this before? Are you experienced mountaineers?” We answered the duty sergeant’s questions and she remained sceptical that we would survive. My phone was not connected on my own network and was classed as roaming so I couldn’t receive any calls. We were asked to call back in ten minutes after she had spoken to the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team. It was by now almost 10pm. I called back the Police station. She informed us that the team were not coming unless our condition got worse. The weather was too dangerous to send a team up the mountain unless we were in immediate danger. There was a plan to send a ski-patrol avalanche assessor to find us at about 7am and help us off the mountain.
We were set. A cold night in a small waterproof shelter in a storm. Steve was freezing cold so he took the spare down jacket. This warmed him briefly but it was soon soaked through. We sat huddled together to share what warmth we had. Every hour we’d award ourselves with a boiled sweet. (Chocolate limes have never been so delicious). I checked my watch, 10:30. After a while 10:32. Then 10:34. Sometimes I zoned out, I don’t think I slept but every now and again I’d find thirty minutes had passed. They were happy times. The night was punctuated by agonising leg cramps that we’d need to try to stretch out whilst remaining in the shelter. For me this proved impossible so every hour or so I’d leave the shelter to stretch and look around. All through the night Steve shivered away next to me. I occupied myself with looking at the time and squeezing water out of the fleece liners of my mittens. I have no idea how they could hold so much water but at least they stayed warm.
Eventually the sun rose and we could finally see our location. We were about 5 metres from the edge of the lochan. Our shelter was possibly on top of a rapidly thawing stream. Overnight it had rained heavily and a lot of the snow had melted away.
Seven AM came and went. Eight AM the same. No sign of anyone about. I was beginning to feel uncomfortably cold now, I was beginning to shiver -something I had mainly avoided through the night. We agreed that if by 9:30 help hadn’t arrived we would call 999 and let them know we were moving off to try to get ourselves out.
9:30 came and went so we made the call and got going. Terrain that had been frozen the night before was now knee to thigh-deep slush. My boots filled with freezing water within five minutes of leaving the spot where we’d sheltered. My foot got trapped in so much freezing slush I had to hack it out with my ice axe. We struggled through the slush to reach a higher, drier more rocky area where the going was easier. Moving north east around the Lochan we headed out of the coire to an area that Steve was familiar with from previous trips. “I know that ridge. That’s an easy enough route to the summit” said Steve. “I’m not going up that **** ridge in this **** wind!” I replied. “Let’s head up this slow slope under the ski lift instead”. We followed the ‘Braveheart’ ski-lift to its top and then further up towards a small col. At the head of the slope there was a steeper, rockier section. In normal circumstances, we’d probably have had a go at scrambling up and out.
These were not normal circumstances.
I said to Steve that we needed to pitch it as we were tired, cold, wet and his leg was hurting where he was spiked. Steve is a far better climber than I am and would usually lead. Due to his condition, it was agreed that I would lead the pitch. I set off with the intention of using as much protection as I could possibly fit on the route.
Every spike I passed I put a sling on. I found cracks for nuts that I would normally not have noticed. I really didn’t want to fall off. Some sections I climbed the snow, other times the rock. The route was a bit windy but I just wanted to get to the top.
The final section was a steep bulge of snow followed by a ramp then topped with a small cornice. I had one axe and wasn’t wearing my crampons. I’d get the best placement I could manage with my axe and then kicked steps. Most steps were double kicked to get any feeling of security. I topped out with the snow crumbling under my feet. We’d thought that I might just have to belay from the ground a long way back but luckily, I found a perfect rock to put a sling over and brought Steve up.
Back on the summit we were back in the wind. We got the rope away as quickly as we could and walked towards the ski area on easy ground. When we were in sight of the top gondola station my phone burst into life. A message from an unknown number said “Hi, I work for Nevis Range and Lochaber MRT. Give me a call when you get this”. I called back straightaway. “Hi, where are you?”
“We’re in sight of the gondola station, on the ski runs”
“I see you. Come into the station for a cuppa and to warm up when you arrive”
A short while of walking and glissading later we staggered into the gondola station. We were met and taken to the medical room where we were given tea and blankets. We explained what had happened and reported the avalanches to the SAIS avalanche assessor. More tea and a bowl of soup was brought to us. It was the most delicious soup ever tasted. Couldn’t tell you what flavour it was but it was hot and fantastic.
After Steve’s leg injury had been cleaned and dressed and we’d warmed up sufficiently that we weren’t worrying them we took the gondola down to the car park. Altogether it had taken thirty hours to get back to the car.
Reflections on how it went so wrong.
• We knew the weather for the day of the climb was forecast to be OK but turning bad late in the evening. We knew fresh snow had fallen the day before.
On reflection, these were not good conditions to be out mountaineering in. A walk, preferably on snow shoes would have been more fun and safer.
• When we got to the summit I made an assumption as to whereabouts on the western flank we were. This is what I based by ‘walk north’ strategy on (Though we did realise afterwards that the SMC guidebook says walk north to get off the summit too).
The problem with walking north from this point is that the summit is so narrow with a cross wind (which we had) and in poor visibility (which we had) a small error takes you to the cliffs of Coire an Lochan.
Had we been 10 metres to our left we’d have gone over cliffs and unlikely to have survived the fall.
• No spare map
A backup map is something I often carry. I also have ViewRanger but not for this particular mountain.
In hindsight, a properly thought out plan for what to do on the summit should have been prepared – including a clearer idea of where on the ridge we finished the climb.
Things we got right.
• I always carry the bothy bag and down jacket in my pack in winter. I have never before needed them.
• We informed the Police of our status and sought the opinion of Lochaber MRT
• We didn’t panic, we made a plan to sit out the night and did so keeping the Police informed as we went and when we left in the morning.
• The kit I was wearing performed really well; long-sleeved baselayer, Montane prism jacket, waterproof shell. Montane terra stretch trousers with long-johns underneath. In the bivi I added waterproof trousers.
• Two pairs of gloves and one pair of mittens were carried and they all got used!
Through the whole experience Steve and I remained positive and continued to work as a team.
We were told when we spoke to the Police on our return to the chalet that there had been a break in communications and that on the morning the Nevis Range ski patrol didn’t know we were there. When I phoned to say we were moving out they were minutes from launching a rescue team to come and find us.
I wanted to write this post partly to clear it out of my head; for a few days since it happened I kept replaying it and imagining ‘what-if’ scenarios.
Another aim I had was that if anyone reads it, sees what mistakes we made they can avoid them and avoid a cold night in a bothy bag!
Summary first, explanation later!
I really like this tent, I’d give it 4 out of 5. If I gave ratings.
I have had a long history of avoiding Vango tents. The first backpacking tent I ever bought was an Equinox 200. I took it out for a test run; a pole snapped and I discovered that the TBS straps had been stitched the wrong way around -so they locked in the wrong direction!
I sent it back to the shop who returned it to Vango for repairs. It came back ‘repaired’ I discovered that they had done nothing and it was still as useless as before. I got my money back and bought a Terra Nova Solar 2. This tent was £100 more, 2kg lighter and still in great shape today, 18 years later!
This experience and sleeping in other people’s Vangos over the years kept me away from the brand.
Recently I bought equipment for my school’s outdoor education program. I needed the full works from tents to maps to boots.
I was wary of Vango for the reasons outlined above but I had seen a lot of people were giving them good reviews. The Tempest 300 is on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award recommended kit list.
I took the plunge and bought some for the school.
I wanted to try the tent so I could iron out any niggles or pitching problems before handing them over to students so I took one from the store on a camping trip with my two children to Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan in Scotland.
The tent went up easily, I skimmed through the instructions in the bag -they seemed fairly sensible and straightforward: Three poles, colour-coded to pole sleeves on the fly. In common with all tunnels, peg one end, pull taut, peg the other end and the guy.
The tent pitched quickly and all in one. The porch groundsheet clipped in and pegged out. Once the tent was up I tightened the peg adjusters and then the TBS2 Tension Bands which prevent sideways movement of the poles adding stiffness.
Over the next three days we experienced bursts of heavy rain and prolonged winds with strong gusts. The tent took everything in its stride. I always left the top of the porch door open and rain never got in. A breeze blew through the tent from the open vent at the back and out of the top vent and porch meaning that there was never a drop of condensation on the inside of the fly -this is a pretty rate thing in these conditions in my experience.
The tent is marketed as a 3 person tent. We used it with three people but two of them were under ten years old. The tent definitely would not fit three full-length (180cm) Thermarests inside, they’d overlap. We used two of these and a ‘body shape’ Neoair and they just about fit. The porch was fairly generous. We had waterproofs, wellies and a stove and plenty of room to move, put on or take off the waterproofs (one person at a time) in the closed porch. It would have been considerable more cramped with three large backpacks stowed in there. When it is used by the school the space should be OK. Three teenagers will take up a little less room (except for their kit, which will be strewn everywhere!).
Overall I was very impressed with the tent. We had plenty of room, it was definitely strong enough for the wild West-coast Scottish weather and pitched easily. I’m glad I chose that model.
Things I liked:
- Enough headroom and ‘foot room’
- Colour-coded, alloy poles (I HATE fibreglass poles! Nasty, bendy rubbish)
- Easy, all-in-one pitching with no faffy adjustments needed
- The list price is reasonable for the quality of tent. (And different retailers discount heavily)
- Good ventilation (Which could be reduced if needed by closing the rear vent)
- Sturdy design put up with wind and heavy rain
- Little touches like the loop on the porch door zip made it easy to grab
- Plenty of pockets inside
Things that could be better:
- Not a ‘Three MAN’ tent (I’m 1.88m tall -three of me wouldn’t fit) Three teenagers would be OK or Two men would have luxury
I’d never been up Ben Nevis before and had heard mainly bad things about the ‘Tourist Route’ -recently rebranded the ‘Mountain Track’ to imply a level of seriousness and to reduce the number of mountain rescue team callouts.
A bit of research led me to the Carn Mor Dearg Arete route (CMD arete). This route takes a more scenic and challenging approach from the Northern side of the mountain and an extended time on a high ridge.
I followed a route from the Walkhighlands website. It began at the car park for the Glen Nevis visitor centre (Parking £3 for the day).
The route begins along the river then picks up the main ‘mountain track’ as far as the ‘Halfway Lochan’. Here the tourist herd turn right and my route turned left.
I wouldn’t see another soul for over an hour after this point.
The path contoured around the end of the mountain before entering the valley between Ben Nevis’ North face and Carn Mor Dearg.
After a while I reached the CIC hut, a private bothy for climbers.
From here it was a steep climb over loose scree, boulders and up a snow field. Eventually I reached the ridge and stopped to admire the view. On my living room wall I have a large, framed poster of the North Face of Ben Nevis. Until today I’d never seen it. Now, the scene before me was the same as the poster. The famous ridges and buttresses spread out in front of me.
The ridge was mostly clear of snow, only patches below the top remained. I was equipped with an ice axe and crampons but was glad not to need them. The scrambling wasn’t too difficult and the conditions were perfect; not a breath of wind and bone dry rock.
Reaching the summit of Carn Mor Dearg I stopped for a brief lunch before continuing on descending first then re-climbing to the edge of Ben Nevis.
Between me and the summit now was a steep boulder field without clearly defined paths. I scrambled, clambered, walked and shuffled upwards and towards the top. After an eternity I realised that the view ahead of me contained more sky than rock. I was nearing the summit! Spurred on I sped towards the blue.
After hours alone I reached the summit and the hordes of tourists enjoying the May sunshine.
There were dozens of people sat, wandering, being photographed, exploring the summit. The trig point was crowded, the ruins surrounded. There was even what appeared to be a fridge strapped to someones backpack!
The weather forecast had said there would be rain later in the afternoon and I didn’t want to wait for it on the summit of the UK’s highest mountain.
After ten minutes I was off again.
As part of my preparations I’d marked my map with the bearings and distances for the safe descent in poor visibility.
I could clearly see the way down but for interests sake I followed the compass bearings to see how it compared to the ground in front of me.
The route taken by the masses closely matched the bearings I was following, so I followed the people and the footprints.
The descent route was still very deep in snow so I used a ‘ski-less’ skiing technique to get down quickly. Slipping, sliding and skidding down the snow field to the zigzags of the mountain track.
The snow cover extended far past the top of the zigzags and so I decided to keep on sliding, skidding and slipping down the mountain. Most of the crowd had by this time returned to following the zigzags but a few of us remained on the snow.
The direct route over the snow saved so much time over the tedious looking zigzags I was back at the halfway lochan in no time.
Stopping to remove my gaiters and have a drink I looked back up, impressed at the ground I’d covered.
Back on the mountain track I was back at the car in a little over an hour.
Overall I’d been out for 8 hours 10 minutes. The guide reckoned 10-12 hours!
Travelling over the snow had definitely been worth it.
As blogged previously I had planned a backpacking trip in the Galloway forest. Two weeks before, the UK was blanketed in deep snow. I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do when I got there so I took a lot of gear. A pickup truck full of gear to be exact. I was ready for the coldest winter weather, the deep snow and even the unlikely event of spring having sprung.
On Easter Sunday I made the four hour drive from home to Glen Trool in the Galloway forest. The roads had all been well cleared, with only patches of snow on the roadsides.
Arriving at the larger Bruce’s Stone car park I passed through, aiming for the very end of the road only to find it was blocked with snow. Reversing back to the main car park I finally turned off the engine and got out for a walk about.
Across the loch, Macaterick looked decidedly alpine. Snow fields, rock outcrops and the occasional pine. The Merrick is out of sight from the main 7 Stanes track but the path was snow covered.
It was approaching dinner time so I drove off into the forest, along one of the logging tracks to find a scenic spot where I could build a small fire and cook some food. About a kilometre or so down the track I found a suitable spot, a wide area on the track provided a safe, non-flammable surface on which I could make a fire. I collected a small amount of dry, fallen wood. Mostly the waste from forestry operations. I arranged the wood into the different sizes I’d need to build my fire and set up a small pile of kindling.
I took a little of my favourite tinder from my ‘fire bag’ (Vaseline rubbed into cotton wool) and stroked the back of my knife against my fire steel. The tinder immediately caught light, as it always does, and the flames licked through the kindling wood. Moments later the fire was strong enough to have thicker wood added to the top.
I arranged a few damp logs at either side of my fireplace to act as a wind shield and to support the grill that i’d brought to cook on.
Kettle filled and placed on the grill. Burgers unwrapped and placed beside the kettle.
Soon I was enjoying a coffee and some delicious, juicy cheeseburgers -proper bushcraft food, I’m sure you’ll agree!
The cooking was complete and I had no further need of the fire, the evening wasn’t too cool so I didn’t need the warmth so I let the small fire burn out quickly. When the last flame flickered and only embers remained I doused the fire with water from my bottle, spread and mixed the ashes and piled a few handfuls of snow on the fire, just to be sure. (The wildfires further north were certainly NOT my doing!)
I prepared my day pack for the next day and drove back to the Bruce’s stone car park. Almost all the cars had left my this time, only a motorhome and a Mondeo remained. The occupants of the motorhome were setting up for the evening and the Mondeo’s occupants were nowhere to be seen. I found a level(ish) spot for my truck and arranged the contents for sleeping. Most of the kit gets shoved into the front leaving only the cool box, food crate and a few essentials in the back, next to my sleeping space.
The back of a pickup truck makes a reasonable bivi. My double cab is a little too short to completely contain me lying down but dropping the tailgate gives me plenty of space to stretch out with my feet on the tail. Maybe in the future I’ll have a single cab, that should leave me enough space to be sealed in.
The dark, star-filled skies that the Galloway forest park is famous for were partly obscured by clouds but it was still obvious that there are an awful lot of stars up there!
The next morning dawned cold and cold. Damn it was cold. The gas stove refused to play. The temperature was so low the pressure in a brand new canister was to weak to make a useful flame. I got out my petrol stove and it roared into life. Soon I was enjoying a coffee and making final preparations for the day.
I set off along the track to Merrick. Within 50 metres the strap on one of my gaiters had snapped off and one of my walking poles had collapsed. An inauspicious start. All other systems were functioning within normal operational parameters so I carried on. Up Benyellary felt like hard work. Those familiar first day thoughts were there again. “Am I fit enough for this?”. “I should have done some pre trip cycling”.
At the summit of Benyellary the wind was howling, smashing into me with great force and freezing cold. All zips were tightened, hat pulled low and strap fastened.
Between Benyellary and Merrick there is a curving ridge. It was covered in deep, powdery snow. The wind was blowing across the ridge, pushing me further onto it, rather than off the nearest side. After a short way I stopped and strapped on my snowshoes. I could now move more easily, less sinking into the snow and the spikes giving me extra confidence. Leaning heavily on my one good walking pole I continued along the ridge and onto Merrick.
In the comfort of my living room the plan was to carry on over Merrick and drop down the other side, along a short, steep ridge called ‘the little spear’. Leaving my backpack at the summit’s trig point I moved over to look at the little spear. It was covered in pristine snow and looked rather steep. I decided against a solo multi day tour thinking that no one would come looking for my body for at least three days!
The summit was far too cold to linger about on so I took a few photos and retraced my steps back along the ridge to Benyellary and descended to the Culsharg bothy. On my way down through the forest towards Culsharg I met my first humans of the day. Passing the usual pleasantries with them, the weather, the conditions on the path etc I was suddenly taken aback when coming up the hill was a student from my school. Here, in the least populated part of the UK was a reminder of work! What are the odds?
Tuesday 2nd April: Snowshoeing on Curleywee
I slept another night in the truck, warm in my sleeping bag except for my nose. I awoke to another bright clear day, arranged some breakfast, packed my bag and set off down the Seven Stanes track towards Loch Dee. The track was easy walking, occasionally slippery in the snow but otherwise fine. I followed above a stream through an old Oak forest. Signboards informed me it was part of an ancient woodland which once covered this part of Scotland from coast to coast.
Climbing out of the valley bottom and towards the hills I stopped to enjoy the scenery. Snow covered trees, frosty rocks and cold waters crashing from hillsides. If more people knew about the beauty of the Galloway forest it would see an awful lot more tourism.
After a few miles walking the trail I arrived at the base of Curleywee. From the summit of Merrick the day before I’d looked with my binoculars across the valley to this place, a wide snow-filled bowl without any sign of footprint or human traffic. I took off my pack and unfastened my snowshoes. I strapped them to my feet, re-fitted my bag and set off away from the marked trail. Climbing slightly over a low bank of snow I reached the bowl I’d seen from Merrick. There were still no signs of people passing, I had the whole place to myself, to make funny showshoe tracks.
Tufts of rough grass occasionally poked through the snow and I wondered how much use my snowshoes actually were. Were they saving me from sinking or was I just playing with my toys? I took them off, stepped forward and immediately sank to my knees! I quickly had them back on my feet and was on my way again.
I didn’t have a particular aim in mind, just a snowy wander in this deserted hillside. I ambled about up and down the slopes, occasionally stopping to study the views with my binoculars. After an hour or so I sat down to eat my lunch- Coffee from a flask and a lamb and mint pie from my local farm shop. After lunch I turned to head towards the trail and I noticed an unusual animal trail. Only a few footprints leading nowhere and no sign of the creature that made them. I took a photograph of one using the snow basket from my pole as a comparator.
Back on the track it was a short walk back to the truck. I decided to spend the afternoon in Newton Stewart as I needed to visit an outdoors shop to replace some broken equipment. When I reached the main road my phone sprang to life, two days of facebook posts, emails and tweets suddenly appeared, the air filling with the sounds of the various notification sounds.
In Newton Stewart I found Cunningham’s Outdoors shop where I could replace my Gaiters and Leki Poles. I decided that instead of another night in the truck I’d head for luxury and booked myself into the Youth Hostel at Minigaff.
Wednesday 3rd April: Scenic drive to the Highlands
I spent Tuesday evening chatting to a couple of locals in a small pub near the Youth Hostel but only had a couple of pints so awoke with a clear head. I was driving to Fort William today to meet up with a friend who was on holiday there with his family. We intended to do some winter climbing on something large and pointy.
Rather than driving the quickest route I picked a scenic route. Through the Galloway Forest to the Ayr coast then North East, via Glasgow to the A82 to the highlands.
I stopped for lunch beside a minor road which overlooked the Firth of Clyde offering fantastic views of the Isle of Arran. On the way to this point I drove along the ‘Electric Brae’ – a natural optical illusion that I read about as a child. Due to the lie of the land you appear to be rolling uphill when in fact you’re rolling downhill.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember what it was I was meant to do along the Brae and so I ended up driving slowly and feeling puzzled. Oh well, It’ll be there next time…
Arriving in Fort William I parked at Morrison’s and went to see how the town was looking, I’d not been there for several years. Walking down the high street I bumped into Steve and his son. We went the Grog and Gruel to chat and make plans for the next day.
Thursday 4th April: Creag Meagaidh (Easy Gully)
I collected Steve from his rented cottage and we set off towards our planned climb. Easy gully on Creag Meagaidh. We parked the car at the nature reserve car park and checked out gear ready for the day. It was now I realised I’d forgotten my water proof jacket. Luckily I had my pile and pertex jacket which is for extreme cold. I changed quickly and we shared out the climbing gear and walked off towards the mountain.
I’ve done a winter route here before but not for many years. On the walk in the climbing area came into view and my head was filled with ‘gosh, thats big!’ and ‘am I actually up to this?’ and other doubts.
The climb is technically easy, winter grade 1. Its a 150m long snow-filled ramp which leads to the summit plateau. It is often used as a descent route by climbers. As we got closer we could see a lot of the other possible routes we’d discussed were heavily corniced and not in ideal climbing condition. A cornice is a build up of snow and ice over the edge of a mountain. From above they’re dangerous because you can step out beyond the edge and fall through them. From below they’re dangerous because they can collapse on you. Even if they don’t collapse they can take hours of hard work to hack through with an ice axe.
Arriving at the lochan we skirted around its frozen surface and prepared our equipment. Crampons were fitted to boots, Ice axes unstrapped and helmets and harnesses fitted. We planned to climb free (without ropes and protection) but had brought them just in case.
Above us another group of climbers were tackling a hard ice/mixed route off to our right. Occasionally little bits of ice would fall past us down the gully. We set off. The route was easy at first, not too steep, reasonably firm snow. As we climbed the gradient increased and the snow became powdery, not particularly confidence inspiring stuff. As it steepened our steps began to slip, we were glad of crampons. Our ice axe technique changed from plunging the shaft into the snow as an aid to holding them ‘properly’ and swinging the picks into the snow. Axe, axe, foot, foot. Repeat. Slowly and carefully we progressed. Occasionally slipping downwards on soft patches of snow.
We were still free climbing, there wasn’t really an option to use the rope as there was nothing to fix protection too, we’d just be tied together. Which meant we’d fall together. If we had fallen we’d need to rely on using our ice axes to stop us. On patches of the softest snow this didn’t feel like it would work, we’d just slide down, then over a large bump and be airborne before smashing into the slope a long way below. The only option available was not to fall.
Steve was climbing with only one axe as the rope was in the way of his second axe. He couldn’t stop to get the axe free because he’d need to take his pack off and the snow didn’t seem stable enough for that. I didn’t know at the time but he was really wishing he had the second axe out. I was a little way ahead, scouting out the route and looking forward to getting to the summit. Steve said to me later, “I could tell you were nervous near the top, you were off like a rocket!” I was moving as fast as I could because I didn’t trust the snow beneath my feet.
Arriving at the top of the climb I took the opportunity for a quick lie down, thankful that I’d made it. Within a minute or so Steve had joined me. We sat and ate lunch before making our way towards the ‘window’ a wide area which was the easiest way up and down from the plateau.
A few hours later we were back at the truck, enjoying an ice cold cola beverage before driving back to enjoy a slightly warmer malty, hoppy beverage.
I visited the Galloway first park earlier this year. It was my first visit and I’m hooked. Since I came back I ordered the OS maps and googled for inspiration.
I’m hoping for a week-long trip, probably in the spring (hopefully before the midge season).
At the moment I think the plan is drive to Loch Trool and leave the car for a few days and explore Merrick and the surrounding area. I’m thinking a three day round trip then resupply and set off again. At the moment I don’t know if I’ll include cycling in my trip, just for a change of activity.
If I take the bike then I’ve got miles of trails to explore too.
After some more study of the maps I’m beginning to form a plan. I think Easter is when I’ll go, unless further research tells me that is into midge season. I think I’ll try a route from Loch Trool over the Merrick and north towards Tunskeen bothy, near loch Macaterick. Spend the night there then head roughly east, through the forest to the Rhinns of Kells and south over Corserine and the ridge. Another night in the woods somewhere before heading back to Loch Trool.
What I’ll do after this I haven’t decided. Either a couple of days cycling, some days walls or another overnighter in the area south west of Clatteringshaws.
There don’t seem to be to many blog post or forum posts about this area so detailed information is limited. Its quite exciting really, a bit of mystery in an otherwise we’ll planned walk!