Monday, 12 April 2010

Eric, Monarch of the Glen

For those of my readers who feel I should blog more often, here's a long tale that should keep you going for a while!

Our intrepid heroes, led by Pauline, aka Mountain Ninja, myself, aka Mountain Goat, and Andrew, aka Mountain Jessie, packed our expedition gear and headed off to the north west highlands of Scotland on Thursday 8 April, for a four-day adventure. Our destination on this outing was to be a 70km traverse of Glen Affric, starting at Attadale near the west coast, and finishing at Tomich, not far from Inverness. The journey north by train, changing at Inverness onto the Kyle of Lochalsh train, passed quickly, due in no small part to Andrew's idea to attempt the Guardian crossword. Five hours after leaving Edinburgh, and two clues solved later, we arrived at Attadale.

It was an overcast day with spits and spots of rain, and we made good progress to our first campsite, just three hours and 9km into Glen Ling over a small hill. The campsite that Pauline knew about was at an elbow in the River Ling, with beautifully soft mossy ground, easy to get tent pegs into. At first we had the place to ourselves, but by late evening another two hillwalkers appeared to camp in the same area. After another attempt at the Guardian crossword with Andrew, with cryptic clues more akin to Three Two One and Dusty Bin to anything remotely sensible, we settled down for our first night.

Morning broke to light rain, and unfortunately we had to pack our tents away wet. This day would see us following the river up the picturesque Glen Elchaig and crossing a mountain pass into Kintail Country Park, a distance of 21km and over 700m climb. This was the day that a pain, that has been plagueing me for months, started to rear it's ugly head again. With each step, the flat of my left heel started to become painful, and this was after only four or five kilometres.

It was a little later, roughly half way, that I spotted something on a small hill nearby. As we got closer I realised it was a stags antler. Closer inspection revealed it to have not long been lost by the stag, and it had six points, making this a mighty twelve-pointer, Monarch of the Glen. Though in pain with my heel, I decided immediately that Eric, as he became known, would journey with me back to Edinburgh, despite weighing around 2 kilos, and I duely strapped it to my rucksack. We stopped for lunch at a small bridge, the only safe crossing over the River Elchaig, but we had added a 4km detour to our route to get to this point. As we sat there, high above us were the Falls of Glomach, a precipitous gorge that could take us through to the next glen, but we had safety concerns as to our ability to navigate it, especially with the amount of water cascading down. Andrew was feeling quite ill at this point, suffering from dehydration, and so we set off at an easier pace, looping back toward the safer pass that would take us across the mountains. It took us an age of trial and error, but eventually we found the feint path to take us over, past pools seething with frogs and frog spawn. By now every step was sending shooting pains up through my ankle from my left heel, and it slowed me down considerably. But I recalled a time, twenty five years ago, when walking with a group of fellow Boys' Brigade hillwalkers on the mountain Braeriach. One of the party, Ewan, developed blisters over the course of the three days. Now, these weren't any old blisters. Both of the soles of Ewan's feet, from the toes to the heels, were single, large blisters! The top layer of skin had become completely detached over the course of the three days, and I can't imagine the pain he was in. Anyway, he decided to jog the last few kilometres out of the hills, as, in his words "it was just as painful to run as it was to walk, but at least it would be over quicker". I believe he still has the scars today.

So with that in mind I felt I had no excuse but to finish this route. We didn't make our campsite until 7.30pm that night, mostly thanks to my slow pace, but it was another triumph in terms of campsites. As darkness descended, and we all finished a very late evening meal, we could hear an owl off in the night. As I slept, a small rodent, most likely a vole or field mouse, had sneeked under my fly-sheet during the night and rummaged around, making off with a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer wrapper. The evidence was found behind Pauline's tent in the morning. We awoke on Saturday to unbroken sunshine and blue skies, and set off in high spirtis on the 19km trek that would take us over the pass called Bealach an Sgairne (Gaelich for Pass of the Howling), and into Glen Affric, one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland, and containing one of the largest areas of ancient Caledonian Pine forest.

As we trekked ever higher on a gradual ascent, we talked of politics, religion, life, and yes, the universe. Literally. We were all in good spirits and my heel was holding up well. The views from the pass were stunning, both looking back toward Morvich, and ahead into the long glen that is Glen Affric.

While we stopped for lunch Andrew adopted a protective covering over his head to cut out the burning effects of the sun, only to end up looking very much like one of his all time movie heroes, the Emperor from Star Wars!

Just six kilometers on and my heels had decided to remind me that things weren't quite right.
As we approached the Scottish Youth Hostel Associatain's most remote outpost, I was pretty fed up with the pain, but we still had a good six or seven kilometres to go before any hope of a campsite, so there was no choice but to just get on with it. I decided to slow my pace and told Andrew and Pauline to head off, which on reflection wasn't a smart idea. The pain, added to being on my own and increasingly far back from the rest of the team, did nothing to encourage me, and by the time myself and Eric reached Loch Affric at 6pm, I was all but finished.

But the campsite did cheer me up. Right at the head of the Loch was thee most picturesque setting. The flat calm waters of Loch Affric were gently lapping onto the most perfect crescent shaped beach, with rugged snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. My first thought was that it felt like being in some remote area of North America, but then I corrected myself. This was Scotland. And this was perfect.

The loch invited us to dunk our tired feet in, and we accepted. It was something akin to plunging your feet into mushed up ice, and was met with a little profanity by me, but the effect was miraculous in reviving my feet. My shoulders were also painfully tight, and it was a while before I felt ready to cook my evening meal. Well fed we sat out with a cuppa and watched the golden setting sun, joined for a short while by a little friendly vole, though a patroling Tawny Owl made him leave us for safer burrows deep underground. Back in my own nest that is my down sleeping bag, I had no sooner put my head on the pillow, than I was out like a light for a long, restful, and much needed sleep, to the sounds of a Snipe somewhere off in the night.

Our final day started at 6am and a thin covering of ice over the tents. When I unzipped the tent I was met with a glorious sight of a rich gold and red sunrise. The Scots Pine on the far off ridge, along the shore of Loch Affric, were backlit with the suns emerging rays, and it gladdened the heart to be priveleged to witness what felt like the dawn of time itself. At that moment I could understand why the ancients worshipped this glorious event.

There was 22km ahead of us on this day, hence the early rise, and I opted to leave ahead of Pauline and Andrew. My theory was if I stayed in front I wouldn't suffer from the psychological effect that had plagued me the day before, and with my heels feeling reasonably recovered, I set off.
However, this splitting up of the team would prove to be a big mistake. I trekked on, trying to keep a distance, but after 5km, where the path turns off away from Loch Affric toward Plodda Falls, Pauline and Andrew were hot on my heels. I was determined to reach the falls first, as I felt it would boost my spirits, and despite the pain having returned with a vengeance, I forced my pace up a bit, constantly checking over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of my pursuers. It became an obsession, so much so, that when they caught up again after 8km at Cougie, I kept on going, deciding not to stop for an "elevenses" break. This was about to prove to be a bad decision. I was carrying an Ordnance Survey map that had been published in 1988, but generally it's rare that an area so remote as Glen Affric, would change in any significant way as to warrant replacing the map. Andrew and Pauline were carrying the most recent version of the map. Just 3km after Cougie, and only 2km from Plodda Falls, I turned left when I should have gone straight on. I was following a clearly marked path on the map, but after just over a kilometre the path degraded, and then vanished, and I was suddenly in deep, moss covered thick forest. I could already hear Dueling Banjos! I knew if I carried on I was putting myself in danger. Despite the extra distance on painful heels, I had to turn back. Eventually I reached the point where I had turned off, and there, to my relief, marked on the ground, were Pauline and Andrew's initials, marking the way they had gone . . . straight on! The thought of now being once more at the back, did me in, and I was not only in pain, but now angry with myself. Yes, the map was inaccurate, but had I stopped when they had stopped I would now be enjoying the spectacle that is Plodda Falls.

Needless to say I eventually arrived at the falls, where I discovered that the car park for visitors that choose to drive in from the Inverness end, was not at the bottom of the gorge, as on my map, but at the top! Having veiwed the falls, I made my way down, only to be met half way by a worried, and somewhat relieved, Pauline. I should have been touched that both of them had great concern for my safety, and were genuinely pleased to see me, but instead, I splurted out several expletives as to the inadequacy of the map, and to them leaving me behind, blah blah blah. I apologised later, of course, but there really was no excuse, and I still feel bad about my reaction.

Safe together again, we ambled our way out of Glen Affric, moving from track to tarmac,
helping small toads across the road, to finish at 3pm in Tomich, one hour ahead of schedule, having completed what may be our final expedition as a team. In June, Mountain Ninja leaves for a round the world cycle tour, as one does, and the thought of Mountain Goat and Jessie, our team leader and expedition organiser gone, lost in the mountains of Scotland thereafter, doesn't bare thinking about. That said, there are always hotels.

Refreshed with a celebratory Diet Coke at the hotel bar in Tomich, a taxi then took us into Inverness. Well fed on pizza we headed home on the train once more, Mountain Ninja, Mountain Goat and Mountain Jessie.

And of course, Eric.

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