The Scotland trip was the culmination of a yearlong project, the Apex Challenge. The project was funded by Sport Relief and officially ended with the ascent of Britain's highest peak. In summer we use the terms hill walking, fell walking etc. But in the cold, dark months it is all winter mountaineering and has to be taken seriously.
Friday 6th. March, Ben Nevis 1344m. I think having children has inured me somewhat to 'Alpine starts' but the biting cold still bit into me as deeply as everyone else. It was 5a.m. when we closed the door on the other residents of the bunkhouse and left them snuggled into the folds of their duvets, sleeping soundly. Snapping on the switches of our headtorches sent out a beam of LED light that bounced off the fresh snow which obscured our path. We had chosen to dress lightly as we knew that toiling up the flank of Ben Nevis would soon have us sweating and sure enough, half an hour into our walk, we were very warm. The path up to Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe (half way lochan) was not as easy as the day before, the overnight freeze had coated the uneven stones with a thin layer of ice; enough to make walking hard but not enough to warrant putting on crampons.
The lochan was where everything changed. Feeble light from the rising sun attempted to seep though dark gray cloud and signalled that we could switch off our headtorches. The wind strengthened and the trial by exhaustion began. Far more snow than we imagined had been dumped during the night and this was augmented by the wind which continued to deposit even more of the white stuff. We were obliged to force our way up Britain's highest mountain, breaking trail through deep, soft snow, often dropping through to our waists – more swimming than walking. As we struggled higher the weather deteriorated: the wind increased, the visibility decreased and the hail pummelled us with greater ferocity. Closing in on the summit plateau means that our uphill travail will soon be over; it also means that our senses will have to be working to their fullest extent. The plateau is crenulated on one side by cliffs carved out of the north face and offering drops of 2,000 ft. and incut by Five Finger Gully, where many people have met their end, on the other. Negotiating these dangers it was not long before we reached what appeared to be a high point. We cast about looking for a sign that we were at the summit and were rewarded by a view of the ghostly bulk which turned out to be the emergency shelter.
We were at the top but we were tired and hungry and as every mountaineer will tell you, the top is only half way. We quickly put up our bothy bags (light weight shelters) and huddling together we put on our warm layers and tucked into our hill snacks. We were refreshed but in the few minutes we had been in the shelter the wind and hail had grown to levels that were going to present a real problem for the descent. And, as we discovered when we emerged from our cocoons, visibility had dropped to almost zero. Now, our footsteps having been obliterated by the wind, the only safe way down was to navigate from the trig point using compass bearings and pacing.
After the first unsettling half hour of walking in a white out, knowing that we were feet away from massive drops but being unable to see anything, we knew we were safe and all that remained was the plod back to the bunkhouse. Tired but elated we arrived back at 3p.m.
Monday 9th. March, It was meant to be a rest day. Pacing yourself is very important, particularly for people who are not used to Scottish winter conditions and the toll they are inevitably going to have on soft, southern, bodies. We decided that Monday was going to be an easy day. Easy is, of course, a relative term anyway – doubly so in winter. Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail) was the destination.
It was where the MacDonalds were supposed to have hidden the cattle they had rustled from their neighbours it is also where many MacDonalds fled after the infamous Glen Coe massacre in 1692. The Lost Valley was formed by the weight of ice that could not escape from the valley as the huge ice cap flowed down to the sea through the pass of Glen Coe from off Rannoch Moor. Even knowing all this, the size of the valley still comes as a complete surprise the first time it is viewed.
The walk itself is a good leg stretcher and involves a few exciting stream crossings, made more exciting by the recent thaw. The sheer volume of water surging down the narrow gorge made a terrific roar, rendering conversation impossible. We realised that river crossings would have to be taken seriously.
After negotiating all difficulties successfully we were left with the short descent to the floor of the valley. Huge boulders litter the strangely flat expanse of the valley and we took a break to enjoy the view of the valley itself, the peaks sealing it in and across Glen Coe to the magnificent Aonach Eagach ridge.
Somehow we convinced ourselves that it would be a good idea to walk up to the valley headwall to check avalanche conditions, which, although not a completely accurate predictor of what to expect in the adjacent valley tomorrow, would certainly give us an indication.
The walk would entail a gentle ascent over a distance of about two kilometres with a lot of trail breaking through soft snow. It was then that we noticed the other group. And they were heading towards the headwall between Stob Coire Sgreamhach and Bidean nam Bian. Great! We could coast in their wake, stepping in their footsteps.
This went well for a while as we made our way along the east slope of the valley. Vigilance is the watchword in winter and as we progressed we constantly re-evaluated the snow conditions (discovering major instabilities within the snowpack, which contained three distinct layers – powder, slab and sugar and evidence of small spontaneous releases of snow from open slopes) We also kept an eye on the weather and monitored how long we were taking.
Before too long the group we were following stopped for lunch, which meant it was down to us to take on the muscle destroying task of breaking trail. We did not need to go all the way to the end of the valley to see evidence of the avalanches that had recently swept down the slopes of the headwall leaving behind its tell tale debris. So what now? Onwards and upwards of course. Circular walks are always more satisfying than having to retrace ones steps. The easy day was about to become an adventure. We decided to climb up to the ridge and follow it up to the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochain (1115m.) Gaining the ridge was hard work and we kept swapping leads as we floundered through the deep powder snow. It was a great relief to reach the crest but visibility had decreased massively and the wind was starting to freshen noticeably.
The ridge is a grade one winter climb and we soon needed to don crampons to tackle the steep, rocky sections. After an exhilarating climb, battling against hail and wind, we reached the summit and as if by magic the cloud we had been in for the last few hours lifted and we were granted a spectacular 360 degree view of the serried ranks of mountains layered back into the far distance. We knew it was not going to last. We watched with awed anticipation (trepidation) as, in slow motion, in line abreast, hail clouds marched up Glen Coe towards us. The implausibly huge stalactite shaped clouds advanced upon us like a mouth full of gigantic fangs. We knew we were about to get a good battering. Time to head down. Then it hit us, the wind and the hail together. Crawling, holding onto rocks, we made our way down to the shelter of the coire wall. Descending from the coire was great fun – bum sliding, laughing and running all the way down to the car park.
Wednesday 11th. March, Lots of water. We are leaving tomorrow so want to get out and squeeze a final winter experience from our trip. But the glorious weather of the previous day is gone, a fact underlined by the rain beating at the windows. So, no chance of getting a climb then. Still, it is our last day and there is no way we are going to skulk about the mountain hut and miss it. We zipped up our waterproofs as far as they would go and forced our way into the deluge.
A nearby low level stroll we had spotted on the map seemed like our best option. The kids had been enthused by promises of goodies at the end of the walk.The walk was more of a trudge on the uninspiring forestry tracks, such a change from the previous days. Part of our walk was on Wade's road, named after General Wade, the engineer who built the first roads throughout the Highlands in the years after the first, failed, 1715 Jacobite rebellion, with the aim of bringing the region under closer government control. This particular road was actually built by Wade's successor, General Caulfield. We had soggy, troll lunch under a bridge. But then Andrew spotted the sign ‘waterfalls’. Frankly we were not expecting much but the falls were really impressive. These fine cascades consist of a series of eight waterfalls down the Abhainn Righ. Following the line of falls down also gave us a short cut to Inchree village which was to be our final destination… or so we thought.
No café and the pub was not serving. The landlord made the helpful suggestion that we could take the ferry over and get coffee and soft drinks at the pub on the other side. We walked to the Corran Ferry which crosses the narrows at Loch Linnhe. The ferry provides access to the beautiful and remote areas of Morven and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and is free to pedestrians. The gently grumbling children perked up at the thought of taking a ferry and the crossing was fun. Of course the pain was still not quite over as we had to stand out in the rain waiting for the pub to open. The pub eventually opened and in its warmth we steamed, clutching our reviving, if incredibly expensive, coffees and Appletizers.
All too soon we had to dash for the return ferry and scurry to the nearest bus stop where the local bus would take us back to the Alex MacIntyre memorial hut to make our last dinner of the trip.