It is Day 2 in Scotland and I am feeling inwardly smug. Day 1 saw the group hike an elevation of some 1100m over a distance of 8.2 km. We missed out on summiting the Munro Mullach Fraoch-choire but still made it to a point higher than can be reached in either England (Scafell Pike, 978m) or Wales (Snowdon, 1085m).
But I hit a psychological barrier – it had transpired that I was the oldest member of the group… Who, me? Seriously? I was only 21 a short while ago… a short, ermmm quarter of a century ago… Damnit.
The previous evening, over dinner in the bothy, we had figured out the potential route for day 2. The group had already been hit by an ankle injury and there were rasping coughs developing all round. We were to split into two groups – Bruno was taking Lee out on a gruelling ML pre-assessment, and the rest of us, led by local veteran and ML Justin, would head out towards the Munro Mam Sodhail (1181m). On reaching the peak we would decide if we (ermmm… I think they meant me!) would have the energy to continue onward to greater things by summiting Carn Eighe (Trig point at 1183m) or – if at that point our/my energy was sapped – we would head back down the valley in the hope of walking in some shelter from the weather.
We gathered our kit together and removed crampons and ice axes from our list of essential kit for the day. No point in carrying excess weight unnecessarily. My Berghaus boots had been hanging in the drying room all night, yet despite my relighting the wood burners at some god-forsaken hour of the morning, they were still a long way from being dry… and they were cold. There was an almighty squelch as I managed to force my feet into them, and a brief shiver running up the length of my body informed me that this was not a bad dream. I couldn’t help dwelling on that term ‘oldest’… wondering what it means in a situation like this. I don’t think I’d ever been the oldest at anything before.
As we moved out and reached a crossroads in the path, Shane, who had been in agony with his ankle, not to mention an insanely painful-sounding bronchial cough, made the decision to retreat. Evo, one of our ML-qualified guides, decided to head back with him. They would later head off to the Loch and make a fire with twigs – you gotta love bushcraft!
With Lee and Bruno scaling mountains on the other side of the valley, our group numbered just four, including our local ML and cheerful guide Justin. Sadly, I was still the oldest but it got worse: I was amongst Special Forces vets, plus a guy called Buster who has rowed, yes rowed, across the Atlantic Ocean TWICE! I try not to giggle at why he did it a second time… did he forget something and have to go back? Such wit forces me to admit something… I knew I was out of my depth hiking alongside these three, and these thoughts would very soon be confirmed.
As we got to our first river crossing of the day, Sputan Ban waterfall on the Allt Coulavie, Simon and I (yes, I know it’s confusing; two of the four of us were called Simon) – looked for a crossing point downstream of Justin and Buster. We got ourselves across and waited for the other two. Suddenly I heard the other Simon call, “Has he gone in!?”. I’d been distracted, my mind still trying to figure out how to avoid letting these guys down on the day, but the shout prompted me to look upstream. “Don’t think so,” I call back. Moments later, as though we were playing time backwards, came the expletive “F~@K!” followed by an incredible splosh! There was no mistaking it: one of our group had gone for a swim. I could only hope it was NOT the cheerful ML Justin. The last time I recalled being in a group where the leader/trainer had had a personal upset was back in the 90’s… and that day, our group had received an incredible beasting, and in fact the trainer’s misfortune had been our fault. I tried to remind myself we were no longer in the military. But for some reason I felt guilty all the same.
I think if I hadn’t been there slowing him down Justin would have stormed 5 peaks just to throw two fingers up at nature. Any personal vendetta was against the elements and in no way directed at the three of us…
As we headed up the valley his broad smile quickly returned whilst mine quickly deteriorated. My fears were coming to life. Not only was I slowing the group down but I was encountering significant problems with my legs. They neither ached nor hurt, I was simply unable to lift one foot in front of the other. It was as though somebody had tied lead weights to them… and we were only a couple of kilometres into the easiest part of the route.
We moved on for another km or so, forded Caochan na Fearna and continued onward to the river Allt Coire Leachavie. This we handrailed, passing the landowner’s hydroelectric plant and climbing up again until the river petered out. We had now reached the snowline, and my legs were showing no signs of giving me an easier time. Every three or four hundred yards the guys were stopping to allow me to catch up. Whilst frustrated to the umpteenth degree, I had already decided that once at the summit, mine would be the first voice to vote for moving forward to the next… although I didn’t even know if I’d make it to the first!
500 metres further on we would summit on a plateau, but two Munros Mam Sodhail (1181m) and Carn Eighe (Trig point 1183m) were respectively approx. 500m and another km further on. When we reached the plateau, the shelter the valley had afforded us petered out and we were now at the full mercy of the wind and hail. Visibility was intermittent at best, and whilst at every stop I was determined to catch a picture of the view, the clouds were moving at such a pace that often the view would disappear before my cold hands could liberate the camera from my pocket. Justin shouted occasional words of encouragement on how well I was doing, but his words passed in one ear and out the other without being registered anywhere in between… I knew I was actually holding up the group but I simply couldn’t go any faster.
The final ascent to the summit of Mam Sodhail (1181m) was not so steep, but it was a slog. On reaching the summit we would stop for a proper – well, 5 or 10 minute – rest out of the wind. This was my first proper Munro summit of this trip, and as such there was only one thing for it: a celebratory pipe!
Next, we moved on to Carn Eighe (Trig point 1183m). This meant descending/scrambling down to a saddle a couple of hundred metres below us before heading straight back up to the peak of another Munro. Whilst we sat and ate our lunch up there the clouds parted for brief moments and offered fleeting glimpses of the peak. It seemed close enough. My mind was willing, yet I suspected it may have been writing cheques my body couldn’t honour!
With something lunch-esque in our bellies, we got to our feet again, but on reaching the saddle were met by strong gusting winds. Undeterred, we continued onwards and upwards, hoods up, walking in silence. Each lost in our individual musings until we finally reached our goal. I was elated for at least a minute or so. I had given it my all and made it! Whatever else happened, this was a double-Munro day, thanks to the encouragement, patience and forgiving nature of my three hiking mates. My elation was halted at the realisation that we were about to head back the same way… in layman’s terms we had to visit that first Munro summit AGAIN simply to head back home!
Having summited both Munros and refreshed ourselves (coffee… more coffee!) we retraced our steps back up Mam Sodhail and onwards as far as the cairn (1108m) that marks the plateau, where we had originally swung right to ascend to the Munro. From there, this time, we headed south and summited Creag Coire nan Each (1055m).
On the descent we traversed down to Bac an Spardain, and here the mountain grass was treacherous, flattened by the recent snow, subsequent melt and rain. I fell no fewer than five times as I attempted to weave my way down the mountainside, hyper-conscious of (and determined to avoid) the jagged rocks that randomly lined our imaginary path. We sort-of-contoured the descent back to the footpath above the junction where we had parted company from Evo and Shane several hours before. Finally, we were on the “home straight” leading to the bothy.
What an amazing day for me. Our group had covered 16km of mountainous terrain, climbed approximately 1500 metres, bagged two Munros (one twice!) and the summit of Creag Coire nan Each (1055m). I could hardly believe that we were only on Day 2. I felt incredibly fortunate to have shared this day with our Adventure Quest ML Justin, Buster and Simon without whose patience I might have been left dawdling on my lonesome in the valley!
Turns out it ain’t so bad being the oldest member of the group after all! 🙂
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…