Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Winters Tale from Torridon Winter 2013

Friday Feb 22nd;

The view from above Achnasheen 
I arrived in Inverness at 08.30 in the morning after travelling from Ireland  using trains and a ferry over the previous 24 hours. My journey wasn't over yet though as I had to catch the next train towards Kyle of Lochalshe from where I could start my adventure with a walk through the Coulin Pass to Glen Torridon. I was as usual carrying a big bag, about 23kilos in total and my plan was to camp and enjoy as wild an experience as possible. Anyway I didn't have a lot of time between trains and I needed to get a map for my first route as I only had the map of the Torridon area. Alas I wasn't able to get one but I was not unduly worried as the route was very straight forward and only involved using well made tracks running through a pass to the glen. The weather forecast was looking great and I had arranged through UK Climbing to meet a man called Patrick Price for a few days climbing so I would have someone to keep me company for the first few days.

I boarded my train and enjoyed the beautiful journey towards the Northwest of Scotland. There had been a heavy frost overnight and the landscape glistened in the morning sun. Not long after passing Dingwal we passed a regal stag standing proud a mere five meters from the track who was quite unperturbed by the intrusion of the train into his world. This was the third time I had traveled this line and I was really enjoying the ever more wild landscape being revealed the further west we went. I was keeping an eye on the stops and eventually I alighted at Achnasheen. This is a tiny station in the middle of a broad valley with nothing on view but bogland rising to elegant peaks. From memory of my web research I knew that the trail started immediately from the station and headed north from there. Sure enough there was a trail immediately across the road heading north   up the boggy slope. It wasn't exactly the well made track I was expecting but I continued anyway.

Some interested spectators
There was a gradual slope rising a few hundred meters towards what looked like a plateau ahead. I reasoned that the way ahead would become clear once I was on the higher ground. Oh dear but the bag was heavy. Each step up the slope was fairly tough and the trail gradually became practically non existent. On the plus side the ground was frozen solid so at least I wasn't sinking into the mire. I pressed on and was actually enjoying myself immensely as I slowly gained height. Eventually I arrived at the plateau and I was a little dismayed to find that there was no obvious way ahead, indeed the ground rose steadily up into the layer of cloud that had settled at about 800 mtrs. I was nonplussed but I reasoned that I must have missed the proper trail and that it must be further to the east of me going through the valley on that side of the mountain. I headed off on a rising traverse of the mountain and eventually arrived at much more interesting ground. A series of snowy coums barred the way ahead. I was now at about 700 mtrs and still just below the cloud but from what I could see,  my hoped for route to Torridon definitely didn't lay this way. I was now facing the fact that I was somewhat geographically misplaced, or lost in other words.

I had seen a couple of hill walkers up ahead of me earlier on before I had started my traverse and now I resolved to reverse my direction and try to find them. I was reluctant to head into the cloud on rather featureless snowy ground without a map so I rose only gently and stayed under the mist. I was somewhat relieved to spot them after a while a mere two hundred meters ahead. I put on a burst of speed (not easy with the big bag) and hailed them as I got near. Thankfully they did have a map and I set about finding out exactly where I was and where I needed to go. Well it soon became apparent that I had got off at the wrong station and should have continued on for another 15 miles to Achnashellach and started from there instead. What a plonker I felt but thankfully they were quite understanding. There was nothing for it but to return to the station and walk to the adjacent road junction and hitch to Kinlochewe. So over six hours after I left the station I found myself back where I started. I had rang Patrick and established that he would be going through Achnasheen later on so at least I was guaranteed to reach my destination. As it happened I didn't need Patrick's help as the very first car that came along gave me a lift as far as Kinlochewe. I decided to continue on to Torridon itself. This time my luck wasn't as good and I had to wait a full five minutes for a lift. So after all the pointless trudging up and around Fionn Bheinn I found myself in the sleepy hamlet of Torridon. Incredibly there is a lovely little campsite provided by the local council for free than has an adjacent toilet and shower block and this is where I gratefully pitched my tent and relaxed for the rest of the evening.
Liathach rising above the campsite

Saturday Feb 23rd;

It had rained a little during the night and when I emerged from my tent after a super nights sleep I saw that there was now a dusting of snow on the slopes of Liathach which rose majestically immediately behind my tent. Patrick had been delayed the previous evening and I was now meeting him at 07.30. It was chilly to say the least and I wasted no time in getting my breakfast ready and organizing my bag for the day. It is a little surreal waiting to meet a climbing partner whom I had never met but I needn't have worried and Patrick proved to be a delightful companion for the next few days whose ready good humour and obvious enthusiasm for the outdoors ensured that we got along famously. We quickly decided to do a traverse of Liathach today. The weather was good. There was a layer of cloud hiding the summits but the forecast promised a sunny day and we were optimistic. We wasted no time getting ready and we were soon leaving the carpark and heading up for the north side of Liathach. After a look at at the guide book we opted to use "Hidden Gully" Grade II to gain the ridge and continue from there.
Trying to figure out where to go

Patrick looking pensive

The easier upper slopes
 The path was quite well engineered and we gained height pretty quickly and any worries I had as to Patrick's fitness were soon dispelled as I struggled to keep up with him. We left the path and climbed up the steep slopes until we entered the wintry bowl of Coireag Dubh Beg. Our route was soon apparent and we roped and geared up when we arrived at its base. I led up the first pitch which started up a deep cleft in the rock. Initially it was pretty straightforward but it soon steepened considerably. An old peg on the right wall gave ready protection over an initial ice step. It steepened further as I went on until I reached a narrow vertical section of about five meters that had little ice available to ease progress. I guess you could say it wasn't in condition because with good ice an easier exit to the left would be possible but now the only exit was up the vertical right-hand wall on reasonably good edges. I was nonetheless relieved to find an old cam in a crack in the roof of the step into which I gratefully clipped before I committed to the steep exit moves. It was quite awkward and unbalancing which required pulling up on axe hooks to reach the exit, most definitely Grade II had been left behind and I would reckon it was a good Grade IV or above section. Anyway I was pleased to re-enter easier ground and I continued upwards on steep icy snow for a further twenty meters until I could set up a good belay and bring Patrick up.  To his credit he managed it no bother and he soon reached me and continued on up for another pitch and I then followed. We moved together for the remainder of the route and eventually emerged onto the ridge and an Alpine wonderland of blue sky and snowy ridges.

Can't think why I wanted to come here

Looking down the gully

Surely one of the finest mountains in Scotland

Alpine scenery
What a mountaineer/plonker
So from just below the first top of Stuc a Choire Dhuibh Bhig we set off along the pleasingly narrow ridge towards the next top Stob a Choire Liath Mhor. The views were wonderful in all directions. Below us the frozen north face of Liathach was a constant draw for the eye. On our left side the mountain plunged precipitously to Glen Torridon 3000 ft below. Further afield was a wild landscape of mountains, frozen Lochs and blue sea that makes this area so rightly famous. We were loving it but on a day such as this who wouldn't. Next up was the highest point of the route Spidean a Choire Leith 1055 mtrs. This was a fine spot to rest for a bit before we continued on to the last difficult section of the ridge, "The Pinnacles" of Am Fasarinen. This we passed quite easily but the rock was mostly dry and free of snow and there was no searching for hidden handholds etc. It was all the more enjoyable for that and we were able to maintain good progress. Patrick who  is a keen skier was constantly on the look out for future lines that he would explore on skiing trips. We continued onwards on easy ground to our final summit of the day Mullach an Rathain. Here we got a great view into a very wintry  Coireag Cham which is guarded on its northern flanks by the "Northern Pinnacles". A route which promises another good day out in the future. We lingered and savoured the day before we headed down the snowy gully of Toll Ban. With less icy snow this would have made a fine glissade but today sense prevailed. Eventually we reached the road and turned back towards our transport. We arrived an hour and 15 minutes later tired but very happy with our day. We returned to the campsite and  a fine convivial evening followed.

I think Patrick was enjoying himself

Possible future days

The short but interesting "Pinnacles"

Sun, snow and sea. What a place
Looking back along Liathach's ridge

Moonrise over Glen Torridon

Sunday Feb 24th;

We awoke to clear skies and a still frosty morning. The target for today was a traverse of Beinn Alligin and we opted to gain the ridge via the Grade I**** Deep South Gully. It was a stunning morning and we were once again in great spirits as we left the carpark and followed the good track alongside the beautiful river Abhainn Coire MhicNobaill. This is an interesting looking river which we reckoned runs along a fault line in the rock as it flows in a deep square cut trench through the wide glen. Soon we reached a diverging of trails and we followed the one due north and up to Bealach a Chomhla where we made our way around to the northeast side of An t-Sail Bheg. Here we got our first view of our route and while the lower slopes were snow free as soon as we entered the very atmospheric well named gully we were climbing on ice hard neve. We made rapid progress upwards and we didn't bother roping up for this straightforward route. There were a couple of sections that touched on Grade II but this was due to the occasional thin section of snow and some ice. The gully curves around to the right high up and the exit is via a steep snow slope to the col between the first and second horns. This was truly delightful as we emerged from the chilly depths of the gully into warm brilliant sunshine.
A beautiful start to the day

When they say "Deep Cut" they meant it.


An icy section

The chockstone was just a little interesting


In the sunshine
 Here we took of our crampons and quickly climbed the first horn on easy scrambly rock. We retraced our steps, collected our bags and set off on the traverse of the rest of the horns which were also quite straightforward  and we climbed to the summit of Sgurr Mor. Here we stopped and enjoyed a bite to eat and savoured the stunning views in all directions. Liathach to our east was a constant marvel and off the the west the entire length of Skye was revealed to us. The Outer Hebredies were also clearly to be seen. The air clarity was marvelous and everywhere you turned mountains, valleys and vast expanses of wilderness were to be seen. I always feel that Scotland has a more remote and wild feel to it than The Alps but as Patrick pointed out, I guess it depends on where in The Alps you go. We dropped down from our summit and headed off on easy ground to our final summit of the day Tom na Gruagaich from where an easy descent is made down into Coire nan Laogh and thereafter back to rejoin the track near the carpark. Once again it had been a stellar day in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in perfect weather, oh and very good company. We decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal that evening in the Kinlochewe Hotel which went down a treat.

Should have brought the sunscreen


The Coulin on Skye

Forever looking onward

Monday Feb 25th;

Another glorious dawn
Patrick had to leave today but we opted for an early start and climb Lawson, Ling and Glovers Route Grade III on Sail Mhor- Beinn Eighe. Once again the weather was perfect and as we gained height on the track between Liathach and Beinn Eighe we were bathed in the fiery glow of the rising sun that transformed the landscape. Even though we moved at a good pace the walk into Coire Mhic Fhearchair took over two hours. Still it was worth it and the views across the frozen Lock to the famous Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe are truly inspiring. We passed a young couple who were going to do the same route as us and climbed up the bouldery  slope where we got geared up and entered the gully that seams the northeast face of Sail Mhor. Again the snow was icy hard and we rose rapidly. When the gully turns left we broke out to the right up steep mixed ground for one pitch and then continued on easier slopes to a notch in the rocky ridge that soared towards the summit. In the notch we relaxed for a bit before tackling the steep rock ridge ahead. From here we moved together, avoiding the occasional icy patches that presented themselves. Though steep there was always a fairly straightforward way to surmount the rock steps that barred progress.

A landscape afire

Looking at Liathach

Spectacular ice climbs on Liathach

The ridge to the northern pinnacles

The Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe

In the notch

The steep mixed pitch

 Eventually we were past most of the difficulties and when I went to take a picture of the spectacular views down the route I was dismayed to discover that my camera was gone. Damm and Bugger it I had done it again. I was gutted to have lost another camera ( I had lost one three years previously on Ben Nevis which had been found six weeks later by the gentleman that is Craig Coid and returned in working order to me). It had been attached to the chest strap on my rucksack and I reasoned that it must have been snapped off when I was scrambling up some of the rock pinnacles of the ridge. Ah well there was nothing for it but to continue and despite all I really enjoyed the rest of the route to the summit of Coinneach Mhor. Here we luxuriated once again in the stunning scenery and glorious weather before heading back down steeply towards the valley below. Initially the descent was horrible on loose rock and scree but eventually we reached better scree that allowed us to glide-step our way to the bottom.When we reached the carpark I left a note under a stone in front of a car that we thought belonged to the young couple we had overtaken on the route telling of the lost camera and with my phone number, on the off chance that it would be found. One aside was that in the morning I found that my gas cylinder had leaked during the night and was empty when I went to cook breakfast. In the little shop in the village I was mighty relieved to be able to purchase the last can that they had in stock. Lucky or what?. And so Patrick took his leave and I must say I was sad to see him go. He had been a great companion over the previous few days and his good humour and intelligent conversation was a pleasure to enjoy. Gladly we have plans for future adventures which I look forward to immensely. I returned to my campsite and tried not to feel too sorry for myself and resolved to make the best of what was left of my trip.
Sunset above my tent

Tuesday Feb 26th;
I had retired early to bed the previous and when I awoke in the morning I was astonished and delighted to see that I had messages on my phone telling me that the camera had indeed been found by the couple and that they were staying in Kinlochewe and I could arrange to collect it from them. I resolved then to pack up and head there that morning and camp at another similar site to the one I was in. It was yet another glorious morning that matched my buoyant mood. I wasn't long getting all my bits packed up after breakfast and I was soon on the road ready to hitch yet another lift to Kinlochewe. Lo and behold the first car that came along picked me up and in short order I was getting out of the car 12 miles away at the campsite. Alas I was soon to discover that it was closed so I about turned and set off in the direction of the village in order to find a wildcamping spot. I spotted a track off the road to the left which led to an area that building rubble had been dumped. I reckoned that there might be some suitably level spot about that I could pitch my tent. I soon found an ideal spot alongside a stream as well so I was all set.
Slioch reflected on Loch Maree

Looking west on Loch Maree

Home sweet home

It was now nearly midday and I needed to charge my phone so I walked into the village where I had a couple of coffees and read for a while. I was to meet the couple at 7 pm that evening so I was at a loose end until then. I returned to my tent and then set off along the road to explore the eastern end of the beautiful Loch Maree. This is I believe the largest loch north of the Great Divide and today it was certainly one of the most beautiful. The views across to Slioch which was reflected in its mirror like surface constantly drew the eye. There are two very nice visitor centers about two miles apart which I visited and I enjoyed the beautiful Caledonian Pine forest that rose gracefully from the lake shore. I had a lovely relaxing day and I was indeed reunited with my camera that evening. Many many thanks to those great people. It just goes to show that folk are good really. A very happy chappy retired to bed that evening after another  great weather day. The forecast was for a change to come on Thursday so I resolved to make the most of tomorrow which looked like being my final blue sky day of the trip.

Wednesday Feb 27th;

Today I intended to do a traverse of the Ben Eighe ridge. Yet again the weather was brilliant with blue sky and no wind the order of the day. I set off from my tent and joined the trail from the nearby visitor center. This followed the stream glen that was dotted with beautiful trees that were occasionally framed in the beautiful snowy triangle of the northeast flank of Creag Dubh, my first top of the day. The frozen ground rose gradually but steadily and after about five kilometers I reached the snow line at the base of the climb. From a distance the slope looked steep but upon reaching it it was really quite laid back. I was delighted to see a stag climb a nearby spur of the mountain and stand regally on the skyline keeping an eye on my somewhat slower progress. Again rock hard snow was the norm yet today the sun felt its warmest to date and I was soon working up a lather of sweat. I would have to be careful to avoid dehydration today as there was unlikely to be any water available on the ridge. Still I had replenished my bottle just before I started climbing in earnest and I was good to go.
Didn't even need crampons

The way ahead

Monarch of the ridge

The mountain I was on a week ago when lost in the top left

The beautiful ridge ahead

Snowslope to heaven

Eventually I arrived at the snowy top and a delightful snow arret stretched out before me towards the next summit Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe. I was off and once again reveling in the Alpine feel of the day. I made good progress and enjoyed some exposed scrambling across some rocky pinnacles before reaching the airy summit. There followed a series of tops and troughs across varied ground that was always interesting and always beautiful. It is a surprise that there are only two Munros on the entire ridge despite its length and there being seven significant summits on it. Anyway I continued on to the point from where I could descent and cross to the highest point of Ruadh Stac Mor. I retraced my steps back to the col and descended easily down to the lake under the imposing Triple Buttresses. There was a change coming in the weather and the valleys were now filling with cloud but for now I was still in the sunshine. I contoured around to the end of the lake and rejoined the track that led back down to Glen Torridon. I arrived back at the roadside eight and  half hours after I began, tired but delighted after another memorable day. Yet again the first car that came along gave me a lift the six miles back to Kinlochewe.  Another peaceful night ensued.

Yet again Liathach appears

Looking back along the ridge

Looking across towards the Triple Buttress

A good view of our route from a couple of days earlier

Thursday Feb 28th;

As promised the change in the weather had arrived and I arose to a cloudy misty day that was at least windless. Today the objective was a hike to the summit of Slioch, a Munro of 980 meters that lay on the northeastern shores of Loch Maree. Today its rocky ramparts were hidden under a cloud level sitting at about 500 mtrs. So off I set and I had to go all the way into the and beyond the village before I could join the trail that way an old drovers route to Letterewe. I was now entering one of the largest road-less wildernesses in all of Scotland. While the weather was poor the day still had it charm as the mists rolling down the hillsides made for an atmospheric outing. Eventually almost two hours after leaving my tent I arrived at the start of the climb. A rough boggy track rose towards the lower slopes of the mountain. I opted to ignore the path and climbed the steep slopes that rose in a direct line towards Sgurr Dubh. By now the cloud was right down at 200 mtrs and I was soon operating with map and compass to ensure I went in the right direction. Eventually I reached the top of the spur and set off along the short ridge towards the twin lochlans that lie at the base of the steep slopes that lead towards the summit. I must confess to feeling quite tired and I found the trudge up the steep ground tough going. Eventually I reached the summit dome and with no views to be had I wasted no time in retracing my steps back down. A navigational error from the top of Sgurr Dubh saw me arrive under the cloud some three kilometers further along the shores of Loch Maree than I had intended, but no harm done. On the return I spotted a track/road on the far side of the sizeable river that drains into Loch Maree so at a wide stretch I decided to cross the river as I was already soaked in my boots. This worked out great and saved me a good four kilometers of a walk. I arrived at my tent and relaxed for a bit before I packed everything and headed into the village and booked into the bunkhouse attached to the hotel. A luxurious dry night followed.
More interested spectators

Still beautiful in the mist

What you lookin at


A plunge pool to die for

A rather Drioch Sloich summit

Worth the extra couple of K to see this

Friday March 1st;

Today was the day I started the long journey home. I planned to walk through the Coulin Pass to Achnashellach and then catch the 15.30 train to Inverness. I reckoned the hike would take five hours so I had a nice relaxed morning and left the bunkhouse at 09.30 to hitch as far as the Ling Hut from where I would start my route. I still had no map but at least this time I was sure of where I was starting from. Weather wise it was a better day than the previous one but a layer of cloud hovered about 800mtrs but at least it was dry. I guess my luck hitching had to run out and I had to wait until 10.15 for a drive. Not that too many cars had rebuffed me but the road was so quiet that only a few cars passed in that time. Anyway I got a drive from a couple that had been for a hike through the nearby woods and at 10.25 I was on my way. As I was now fully laden again the bag was heavy but I didn't mind as I was in great spirits and basking in the glow of what had proven to be a great holiday.

The Ling Hut

Sgurr Ruadh

Impressive rock buttress

Caledonian Pines

The way followed a good track that rose steadily and I must confess rose a bit higher than I expected but I pressed on. I eventually arrived at flat expanse that led to a steep pull up to a col. Sgurr Ruadh loomed large on the right and as I left Glen Torridon behind me I entered another spectacular theater of mountain scenery. I arrived at the col and enjoyed a brief lunch and admired the sweeping views that stretched before me. This trip just kept on giving and the weather was trying once again to clear. The way ahead was clear and the track swept gently down into the distance towards the valley beyond. I went on at my leisure and eventually left the mountains behind and entered more woodland. Suddenly I came to level crossing and immediately adjacent was Achnashellach train station. At least I had finally arrived at the spot where I should have started my oddessy the previous week.
(Actually when I later checked on line I discovered that once again I had traveled the wrong route and started from the wrong place in order to enter the Coulin Pass but I reckoned by happenstance I had chanced upon a better more interesting route and at least this time I arrived at the correct destination.)
I told you I wasn't lost.

The remainder of the journey passed off in an uneventful fashion and left me with plenty of time to bask in the afterglow of a great trip. Torridon will live long and fondly in the memory. It is a truly beautiful place which I had been fortunate to see at its best. I had some wonderful alpine days and I feel made a new friend whose company added to an already great experience. I look forward to the opportunity to renewing my acquaintance with both.


Alex Roddie said...

Stunning pictures Stephen. Must have been quite a trip!

Stephen Mc Auliffe said...

Thanks Alex. Its such a stunning place it would be difficult to take bad pictures. I would love to see what you and James would produce. Keep up the good work by the way.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great write-up Stephen, thoroughly enjoyed it! Torridon / Liathach are among my favourite places - you were blessed with the weather though!


Stephen Mc Auliffe said...

Thanks David. It is now one of my favorite places as well and the weather was superb.

Elaina said...

Great trip report there Stephen and fantastic pictures. Torridon is one of my favorite places and have been fortunate to have had good weather on my trips there.

Making me think I need to plan another trip.

Stephen Mc Auliffe said...

Cheers Elaina. It was so nice myself and my better half are heading there for a few days again next month. No climbing then though.