Sgurr nan Conbhairean (Munro – 1109m)
If there is one thing likely to put a band of veterans on edge, during a stay in an off-grid structure 6 miles from the nearest road and 12 from the nearest town, it’s probably having to deal with uninvited visitors. Throw in a “grumpy Rupert” – as he was probably known from the age of 16-38 – and in the morning it would be no surprise to find that a pile of freshly-turned soil, reminiscent of a huge mole hill, has sprung up somewhere nearby…
It was night 3 of our 4 days of hiking with Adventure Quest. We had spent the morning listening to talks by our MLs, followed by a long afternoon practising micro-navigation around the shores of Loch Affric. Fading light (and lack of spectacles!) had led me to give up the search for the last two flags on my list, and even before reaching our bothy “home” I simply knew that the others would have collected evidence of reaching all ten. For a start, they had decided to work their way round the course in the correct order, whereas I had opted to do it backwards… HEY, I’m left-handed, what did you expect?!
We had one more day in the Glen Affric region and despite the arrival of unexpected guests, who incidentally were the bothy caretakers and not so unfriendly as it turned out, we needed to organise ourselves for the last push. Got to go out with a bang and all that!
With the exception of Storm Doris, the weather for the following day was not predicted to be too bad. However, the ‘suggestion’ of what we might achieve looked a tad… well, optimistic. It wasn’t until Evo jumps in on the conversation and suggests driving us the first 3-4 kilometres (hallelujah!), that I started to believe we might have a fighting chance of achieving our goal.
With Justin heading back to civilisation to buy our all-important last supper (pizzas and beer!), Shane still battling his bronchial cough and Evo acting as a taxi for the day, it was just Lee, Simon, me and our civilian International Mountain Leader Bruno making ready to head up into the hills for one last jaunt. A plan was hatched and agreed upon, and we finally retired for the night.
The morning of day 4 dawned, and we needed to get out early. My fellow AQ companions in the bothy were more edgy than usual, largely due to having to share a kitchen with strangers, and to be frank it was probably our swiftest exit from the bothy of all the days we were there. Packed into Evo’s 4×4 we headed up the track and began our trek up the valley to our drop-off and intended pick-up point.
At the end of the ‘track’ we dismounted, lifted our eyes to the skies and for once, the weather in the valley looked agreeable! So we checked times with Evo and set off on foot…
Following the Allt na Ciche river for approximately 5-6km we were ascending all the time, but gradually enough that I barely noticed. My legs were behaving, which is always a bonus with a 19.25km hike ahead of us, and naturally, I had the ‘I’m an old man’ trump card at the ready should anything go awry on the physical front… it turned out not to be necessary today, although I was once again and unsurprisingly the slowest of the group.
Finally reaching the end of the valley was a psychological win, despite the lack of any significant ascent. It signalled that we had covered almost half the day’s distance, and therefore even before we embarked on the steep climb to the ridge prior to Bealach Choire a Chait, my ‘warped’ mind reassured me that we were, essentially, already on our way home.
We started the climb – Oh, did I mention that my legs were in fine fettle? Me being something of an Olympian and all, fine figure of a man etc… I did? Good, good yes… ermmm… I lied.
We ascended to the ridge and began the climb in earnest, and despite poor visibility a peak was almost in sight. We continued on, contouring up to Drochaid an Tuill Easaich (1001m), our first summit. We didn’t hang around as the rain had arrived, but I watched on as various companions paused to change their gloves… I was acutely aware that as my spares were still drying at the bothy, I’d have to stick with the sopping wet pair I was wearing. I began to think I might be in trouble; I was already losing the feeling in my hands, my legs were aching and consequently I ask myself that never answered question of: will I ever stop being a ‘yes’ man?!
I persevered, and on we hiked, finally reaching Sgurr nan Conbhairean (Munro – 1109m). We stopped for a bite, but it was brief. With the weather rapidly worsening we looked for potential bail-out point/s on the map should we need one. There was one close by… but oh oh oh, it was also temptingly close to the next Munro… I often wonder why, why do people look at ME when suggesting an available bail-out option?! I mean I may be the oldest, least fit, yadda yadda yadda… but bail out, a few hundred metres from a worthy goal?! *Pah*. My inner “logic” would rather see me head straight up into the death zone…
We continued on descending once more before making another ascent to the peak Sail Chaorainn (Munro – 1002m). As I scrambled for a victory shot I could sense impatience amongst my fellow hikers. This was no time to stop, the weather had closed in and at this Munro it was undeniably severe.
Did I mention the psychological upside of having covered half the day’s distance? Yes… Oh good, the psychological downside just arrived… We were half way out and had passed our bail-out descent point. We had no option now other than to soldier on as quickly and safely as possible.
I was still fumbling around as the other three moved off. Between the two munros the senses in my hands had not returned. There seemed no point in enlightening them as to my predicament, as there was only one way back now and that was onwards until we were essentially above the pick-up point. Unable to use either of my hands, I couldn’t hold my poles. I removed the daysack to try and collapse the poles, as there was no point in attempting to grip them with hands I couldn’t feel. I remember Evo mentioning to me on a different day that keeping one’s fingers together aids circulation. Struggling to attach my poles to the daysack, I prepared to move again. Finally, I stuffed my clenched fists into the soaking wet gloves. Bruno shouted back to me, wanting to make sure I was ok. My reply was a lie. And we moved on… I figured that once I got moving I WOULD be ok.
We were heading straight on to Carn na Coire, a peak of 1001m that doesn’t rate as a Munro due to its close proximity to its neighbour (though in height terms alone, it does qualify). The weather was simply getting worse. We were now battling against gale force winds. At times I struggled to stay on my feet. I cursed my numb hands (along with Storm Doris!) as my poles would have been very useful here. Looking ahead I saw Lee, who stands solidly at over 6 feet tall, forcing his body into the wind in a mighty struggle to stay upright. The wind was now gusting at 50-60 mph. Bruno was battling to read – nay, just hold onto – his map. Quick to respond to this brutal downturn in the weather conditions, he directed us off our planned route to an area of potential shelter. By now we all needed a little respite. And a rest. And a bite!
Out of the worst of the weather, we discussed our next move. Every word had to be communicated in shouts! We could almost see our arranged pick-up point, down in the valley. There was no mistaking that it would be a precarious, tough descent… and then it happened. Our normally super-composed ILM Bruno, or the ‘don’ as some affectionately call him, suddenly let rip with a string of expletives about getting off this ‘f*&^ing’ mountain! In shock I looked to Lee – the ex-mountain-rescue climber with a habit of laughing off situations that would terrify most hikers – to see him, too, look back up at the mountain with a weathered grin. “Well,” he yelled above the wind, “that was all a bit intense!”
I don’t remember much of note after that point in the day. My mind was totally preoccupied with both Bruno’s outburst and Lee’s confirmation of what I’d been convinced of, but would never had voiced. It really had been intense… but moreover I was beginning to believe that Bruno might have wanted to have aborted at our previous bail out point. In suggesting we keep going I think we might have broken him… Poor lad, he was a good egg too!
Our final descent of the day took us via Tigh Mor na Seilge (929m) where the wind speed was roughly 30mph but still gusting faster. The hike was downhill all the way from there, and we passed Carn a Choire Ghurim (793m) and Cadha Riabhach where we had deviated from the planned route due to those increasing wind speeds. Struggling at times, even at this point, to remain on our feet, we managed to contour back down the heather-clad banks towards our initial drop-off point.
Once back in the valley and having reached the track, everybody – non-smoker included! – participated in a smoke of tobacco. Out of the wind chill and rain and with constant movement my hands had finally regained feeling and I was simply content not to have gotten full on frost bite. Finally below the weather we were on the home straight. We sauntered past the pick-up point and made our way directly back to the bothy for one last night. Here we would discuss at length the trials and tribulations of the past few hours, the mountain experience we shared during a most turbulent storm and the moment when, dare I say it, we broke our International Mountain Leader, now confirmed for the Nth time as a worthy leader and companion to any veteran.
Sadly, this was the end of the Scotland trip. What an incredible four days of hiking and camaraderie we enjoyed. For me, what a challenge, and my thanks go to Adventure Quest boss Paul Lefever, his partner and IML Bruno Yates, our Mountain Leaders Justin, Evo and Shane, and my fellow hikers Lee, Buster and Simon. We had all arrived hoping for a spot of winter ML training and whilst the lack of snow was a bit of a let-down on that front, the weather and ‘alternative’ challenges certainly were not!
Next stop… March 2017 in the Lake District. Bring it on!!
Distance on the day – 19.25 km
Height gain – 1407m
Two Munros summited and several peaks.
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…