Reciting my new mantra, “I do this for fun, I do this for fun, I do this for fun”, I push forwards through the shit. The word “fun” coinciding first with the left and then with the right footfall. There, in the valley, it had just been wet. Here on the ridge it’s, all of a sudden, viciously and horizontaly wet. Rain or cloud, when you’re in it the difference is purely academic, is blasting into my eyes and every orifice that’s not covered in Gore-Tex. My legs are cold. Still wet from those ten minutes of optimism when, thinking we’d been dealt as much Scottish weather as we were going to get, I’d removed my overtrousers. Optimism, in these parts, is often unwarranted. Now I’m left with the job of burning off all that wet and driving it through a semi-permeable membrane. How semi-permeable I wonder? Too semi I suspect. In any case it’s using more energy than I care to use for the purpose.
Squinting forwards I see Thim and Willem-Maarten half walking, half scrambling along the ridge. The cloud streaming over the rim, skeltering first about their boots and then about their heads, makes for a picture full of drama. The cloud blasting into my left ear as I snatch a quick photo is less pleasant altogether. I follow them, fluidly enough over the easy sections but stop-start over the rough bits, frequently with more than two points of contact and moving only between gusts. The wind, barrelling at double and triple strength through the notches and over the crest of the ridge, is powerful and unpredictable. Thim stops on the true summit and takes the weight off his legs. I join him as Willem-Maarten does an out and back to the true end of the ridge. Binnein Mor, after Sgor Eilde Beag and the unnamed peak at the other end of the ridge, is our third top of the day and our first Munro of the trip. I wonder how many more we’ve got in us.
The day before had been a fine one. We’d stepped onto the platform at Corrour a little after midday and, after negotiating the sodden black ground between the growling yellow machines, had crossed the grassy top of Beinn a’ Brhic under clearing skies. By the descent to Loch Chiarain we were walking in shirt sleeves under a warm sun with red deer scattering before us. Our route, largely on quad track, had taken us to the shoulder of Meall Beag, at which point, including time spent in taxis, planes and trains, we’d been fourteen hours on the go and had decided enough was enough. There had been more in our legs but, we’d guessed, not enough to get us sufficiently high on the other side of the Lochs Eilde to be sure of an insect free night. It’d been a good call.
The bivvy, with a wide view of the Blackwater reservoir and the tops behind, had been a fine one. There’d been wind enough to keep the beasties heads below the parapet but it’d been warm enough behind a tarp under a layer of down. We’d been dealt a fine sunset and, before the sun had fully set, the moon was high in the sky. A dry airy bed, with a belly full of home-cooked Indonesian, and a head full of the joy of being back on the hill had been a recipe for a good nights sleep. The only real problem of the day had been the touch and go discussion with the petrol station attendant who, for unfathomable reasons of health and safety, had at first refused to allow us to fill our regulation fuel canister with regulation fuel but even that frustration had been laughed off as we paid with the pound coin we’d found lying on the floor next to pump three. In fact the only sign of what was to come had been sent in the small hours when, after waking briefly, I’d been serenaded back to sleep by the sound of wind-blown rain on taught spinnaker fabric.
Today, high up on the winding Mamores ridge, the trip has taken on entirely different character. The outcome is, all at once in question. On the way up we’d briefly debated the wisdom of climbing higher but we placed our bets on the changeability of the Scottish mountain weather and the fallibility of the MWIS. We were right to bank on changeability, unfortunately the change had been for the worse. Just, in fact, as the MWIS had promised. Now we have little choice but to back up along the Binnein ridge and deal with the up and down, and whatever else we get dealt, on the three kilometres of ridge between us and what looks like the first half decent bivouac.
We keep moving. A brief pause for a shivering lunch had taught us that there’s little chance of respite from the onslaught. Movement, although it costs energy, gives warmth. Energy is, however, a finite resource on any scale and, as we pick our way towards the second summit of Na Gruagaichean, it seems that Thims supply is running short.
There’s not much joy in this. I say not much because there is some. At least for me. The joy of confidence, even if misplaced, in my ability to function in this shit accounts for some of it but it mostly stems from the beauty around me. A rough edged, sharp-stinging, in your face kind of beauty but beauty nevertheless. I realise once more that I’m never more alive than in these moments. These moments teach me a more about myself than I’ve ever learned elsewhere. In these moments I understand how deep my love of these places and this pastime is. I know, from somewhere inside, so deep inside me that I can’t pinpoint it, that however rough it gets this time out, I’ll be counting off the days until I can come back out again.
Every climb starts with a half promise of a view. Like all the others before it this one finishes in a disorientating grey-white soup, and once again we start down on a bearing. A few scrambly metres further, as a view of the bealach opens up, surprisingly lush green, I pocket my compass. Stopping on the way to shoot a few photo’s I’m slower down than the others and I can feel their pain as they stand waiting for me to catch up. As I cross the last few meters of flat ground a view of Kinlochmore opens under my feet. A joke about beds and beer is met with more enthusiasm than Willem-Maarten anticipated. We huddle up and discuss options. A bail out to Fort William would involve a stiff decent and a long and miserable walk out along track and road. Instead we decide to bank the lions share of our meters climbed and drop off to the North into the relative shelter of Coire Ghabhail to look for a camp and hole up in the hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
All things are relative and the relative shelter in the head of this little valley is not so very great. Still, better by far to pitch here than to stay on the ridge, even though it’s wetter underfoot. The best available pitch identified we string up two tarps, the small one blocking the entrance of the big one in an effort to seal off the end. Thim, shivering and wet climbs in first. As I follow, crawling with cold wet legs over sodden ground I already understand that this bivvy is to be a memorable one. For all the wrong reasons.
It’s only around 5PM and as I set about stripping wet layers and wriggling into my bag I’m aware of the potential for many hours of misery. Yesterday evening I wouldn’t have traded my bivvy bag and tarp for the world. Today the equation balances differently. Yesterday we had two more glorious high bivvies to look forward to. Today we're most likely setting up for our last night out before heading for somewhere dry.
I lie in my bag listening to the rain and wind assaulting the shelter and watch Willem-Maarten light the stove. It occurs to me that the safety-conscious petrol station attendant would have a heart attack if he saw what we were doing with his petrol. Willem-Maarten then prepares a spicy mexican fry up with wraps. A miraculous meal under the circumstances and one which is all too soon finished.
Thereafter, I pass an hour or two lying across the slope fighting gravity. Finally giving in, a few minutes of bag contortionism secures me a more comfortable lie. Then all that’s left to do is to lie awake and fret about the wildly flapping shelter and my gradually collapsing down. Time not spent fretting is spent trying to forget that I need to piss. Sleep doesn’t come easy. Each time I get comfortable the wind contrives to find new ways to drive rain into the shelter and onto my face.
Sometime in the early hours I must have found sleep. I know this because I awake surprisingly fresh from a surprisingly deep sleep to the sound of conversation. The background noise hasn’t changed. Rain is still being driven into the tarp. Willem-Maarten and Thim are still discussing the bail out through glen Nevis. I bight my tongue for the time being.
We breakfast in our bags. Calories and strong coffee are often game changers. Mood, however black, can switch on a full stomach and a caffeine buzz. Today however is different. I eat and drink in the knowledge that the cold sodden lump of trouser and sock stuffed into my pack will soon have to be unravelled and pulled onto my comparatively warm and dry person. I also know that, perversely, this thing I really don’t want to do is going to take a lot of effort wriggling on the wet ground under a low tarp and fighting the friction of cold wet wool on skin.
In the full expectation that conditions will appear better from outside of the shelter I force myself to dress and crawl out. The world fails to live up to my expectations. The morning ritual, though unpleasant, comes with a partially obscured view across glen Nevis. Nothing’s changed. sheets of cloud are still spilling over the ridge a few metres above my head. They spin off across the valley revealing chaotic patterns of airflow like smoke in a wind tunnel. I realise, as the clouds break momentarily, that my view is of Sgurr a’ Buich. Almost exactly twelve months earlier I’d bivvied warm and dry on its other side under clear skies. What a difference a year makes!
Tarps struck and packs packed we check the map and confer. We're just a couple of hundred meters shy of Stob Choire a’Chairn and to me, it makes more sense to continue along the ridge than to head down immediately. If we bypass Am Bodach there’s not a huge amount of rise and fall to come and navigation has thus far been none too challenging. If conditions improve our effort will be highly rewarded. If they don’t we can leave Stob Ban for another day and drop out down the Allt Coire a’ Mhusgain. I feel good, Thim less so, but even if it’s not in the legs it’s in the spirit and we turn to face the slope and start the days work.
Stob Choire a’Chairn comes and goes. We bypass Am Bodach as planned and make the top of Sgorr an Lubhair in good time but in bad weather. We cower to leeward of the tumbledown cairn and snack on a cold food under colder rain. As I look across at the others, although I still see smiles, I understand that this is as far as we’re going to come on the high level route. All bad things must come to an end and when we set off down it’s again on a ebaring and in the knowledge that we’ll keep on going down all the way into the glen.
Walking off, again on a bearing, we move first slowly over a jumble of boulders and then pick up the pace over a well-worn path. As we snake around, swinging fist left and then back right, we're given tantalising views of the long sweeping curve of Stob Bans glorious East ridge. From this perspective it looks steep. Steeper than Harvey’s contours tell me that it is. Cloud worried by the barking wind huddles nervously against its long Southern slope, grey against green, and at every opportunity spills over to escape Northwards. I want to climb it. I really want to climb it but I know what’s up there; more of what we’ve just had for the last day and a half. Down here I feel the optimism welling up once more. The hill looks warm and inviting the cloud fluffy and soft. Up there, from 800m up, the wind will be steely edged and looking for prey. The clouds will transform once more into angry swarms intent on doing damage. As much as my heart says climb my head says descend. Besides I don’t think my companions will buy the overused line " hey its Scotland, the weather’s liable to improve any minute now" . Down it is.
The walk out is a surprisingly pleasant one. The rain abates and holds off for the most part. In fact at one point we’re fooled into stripping off water proofs only to be caught in another shower. At least, here in the valley, it’s no longer of the horizontal but of the vertical kind.
The path hugs the stream for most of the descent. At first zigging and zagging too and fro giving fine views from an ever changing perspective. The Spikey black butresses of Stob Ban look on ominously as we progress. The green gets gradually greener. The mud gradually browner. First comes the rowan then the birch then the bracken and finally, and all to soon, the gate. The gate, to keep beasts either out or in, is to my eye a powerful symbol. A symbol that says we’re back in the world. A symbol that says another trip us coming to an end. Another one down how many more to go?
A little way beyond the gate comes another gate and then the tarmac. We bash the road at a good pace on surprisingly sore feet. There are no beds at the Nevis Inn. But we fix our feet with a welcome drink and, sitting amongst the sponsored masses with fresh tales of the Ben spilling over steaming plates of food, we phone around to find the last beds in Fort William.
A little later we find ourselves pounding the road back along the river to the SYHA to dry sodden kit and eat a meal prepared in a well equipped kitchen sat in a comfortable dining room. Ironically it’s the only freeze dried meal of the whole trip. Then all that’s left to do is to dispose of the remaining petrol before flying out. After some debate we do so by burning it off in the car park. Much to the annoyance of the health and safety conscious warden who agitatedly accuses us of doing "a very stupid thing". It occurs to me that he doesn’t know the half of it.