Monday 16 March 2015

Fisherfield weekend

My mate Adam and I had an epic weekend in Wester Ross the other day.

The weather forecast from the MWIS was not promising:
Widespread gales on the mountains, the wind often storm force...difficult walking where exposed even at fairly low levels; any mobility tortuous on some higher areas. Severe wind chill...Incessant rain, often torrential western areas south of Ullapool [exactly where we were going!], and snowmelt making it very wet underfoot with water courses in spate; extensive flooding...blanket very low cloud
After a last minute panic involving boots - Fedex delivered my newly resoled boots from LSR only a couple of hours before our flight - we hopped on the Easyjet Friday evening flight to Inverness. Omens for the weekend were not good when we hit very windy conditions on the descent. We were only a few feet from the ground when the plane suddenly climbed again - the pilot decided to do a go-around as it wasn't safe to land. With thoughts of ending up in Aberdeen or Glasgow in our minds we hoped for the best and there was a round of applause as we got down at the second attempt. The late night drive via the A9, A835 and A832 took us through apocalyptic weather - the rain tore down and the wind did its best to throw us off the road. Not promising.

We had had a late panic about gas, having only remembered at the last minute that pressurised canisters can't be taken on flights, and that we would be arriving in Inverness long past closing time. Gordon at Craigdon Mountain Sports was brilliantly helpful and the casual observer might well have wondered why a bloke was rooting around in the Craigdon bins late at night. Thanks to Gordon, we were fully equipped and avoided a trip to Ullapool the next morning.

Rather than camp by the roadside we stayed the night in the Sail Mhor Croft Hostel at Camusnagaul, a mile or two past Dundonnell. It was a really nice place and we had some brief conversations in the morning with other people staying there - the weather had not been good.

Our initial plan had been to tackle An Teallach from Dundonnell, but rather than doing the ridge, to drop straight down from Sgurr Fiona to Loch na Sealga, cross the Strath na Sealga and continue via Gleann na Muice and Gleann na Muice Beag, Ruadh Stac Beag and Lochan a Braghad to Ruadh Stac Mor and then round Fisherfield anticlockwise, with a camp either at Lochan a Braghad or hopefully after A'Mhaighdean if we were going well. However, given the conditions it was clear that we would have to massively downgrade our expectations and ambitions - not least because the Strath na Sealga would clearly be impossible to cross. With appalling visibility on high ground, we decided not to bother doing An Teallach with no prospect of a view, so instead we made a leisurely start, parked up at Corrie Hallie and trudged up Gleann Chaorachain. Instantly we became apparent of the water levels; the stream was a raging torrent and the waterfall was spectacular. Indeed the footbridge across the stream higher up was nearly submerged. We wandered off the path for a vew of the Toll an Lochain and then realised that having decided against An Teallach, our options were fairly limited, as we would be blocked in by the rivers. The rain was heavy though not torrential, but it was certainly incessant and feeling miserable we decided to head for Shenavall bothy to have some lunch and discuss options.

Shenavall is a lovely bothy in superb condition. We got a fire going and attempted to dry out somewhat, had an extended lunch and then wondered about what to do. A look at the river told us straight away that crossing it in these conditions was out of the question. It was several feet above normal - trees were nearly submerged - and we would be swept away instantly. We retreated back to the bothy for another cup of tea and to watch the red deer just outside the window. A large raptor soared above the cliff. Golden eagle? Probably a bit small and a bit flappy, but certainly a possibility.

Deciding against An Teallach once and for all in these conditions, we decided to push on up the Strath na Sealga, staying on the east side of the river, to make some progress at the very least, scoping out our options. The plan was to get up toe the wood (089790), pitch camp and perhaps strike out sans baggage for a bit of a walk, or even lug the tent and try and get onto some higher ground, so that at least we'd have less to do the following day. Our worry was that we could see the stream coming down off Am Fireach and the waterfall was looking very bloated - we were somewhat worried that we might not be able to get across it without climbing right above it.

In the end it was even worse. In appalling conditions we made our way at a slow pace along the strath, but in fact our progress was halted even earlier; the stream at Achneigie proved impossible to cross - the ford was dangerously high. Without a second thought and in a foul mood we turned around with our tails between our legs and headed back to the bothy. At this point I realised that my camera was kaput - I'd had it in its case inside the pocket of my waterproof jacket and it was soaked. My bad for not putting it in a drybag first. No permanent damage done, but it refused to work for the rest of the trip and our photographic record is unfortunately minimal.

Sunday morning awoke brighter. We got going about 8am and with An Teallach in mind we decided to take a quick look at the river on the off chance that it might be crossable. To our astonishment the water level had declined dramatically and we decided to give it a go. Boots and socks off, trousers off, and a lot of Dutch courage was necessary. The water was only just above freezing and gave a burning sensation. I had bought a cheap pair of plastic "crocs" type sandals in Shoe Zone just for this purpose but in the end we had left them in the car. I bitterly regretted my mistake as the stony ground proved far more painful to my feet than the cold. Adam's walking poles proved invaluable as it was hard to stand in places - the current was still strong. Falling in wouldn't be a joke - OK the river would only take you a few hundred metres down to the loch, but with packs on our backs and near-freezing temperatures meant that it would be life-threatening. The crossing was just about bearable though and after drying off wet feet, socks and boots straight back on, a hot cross bun and getting away quickly and it wasn't too bad.

We then had to slog through the huge bog between the two rivers before turning up Gleann na Muice. The crossing of Abhainn Gleann na Muice was probably objectively more difficult, but at least this time our bodies knew what to expect and the recovery time was even quicker.

The twin peaks directly across the river look like they should host some sort of dwarf kingdom:

We turned up Gleann na Muice Beag but rather than following the path beside the burn we decided to head straight up the steep slope of Creag Mhor a'Bhinnein. At this point our strengths and weaknesses became apparent. We both have our naive side (in slightly different ways) but are both reasonably intelligent and reasonably sensible (though our friends would beg to differ); while I've got decent kit (all the gear, no idea) Adam had inadequate kit; but while Adam does a lot of exercise, my fitness isn't what it should be and I found myself lagging behind. Badly.

Don't look down. Don't look up, for that matter, you'll only depress yourself. How far ahead is he? How long will that take for me to catch up?2 minutes? 5? He'll have to twiddle his thumbs in that time. How many hours will be wasted today because of my lack of fitness? How many missed Munros will that translate into? A stumble. Fuck. Not concentrating. That's jarred my thigh and taken even more wind out of me. Come on Eoghan. Concentrate. One leg in front of the other. Adjust clothing for conditions, keep plodding, don't stop, you know stopping doesn't do anything apart from lose time. A desperate sip at water. Too cold! Now I'm gasping for air, rhythm all gone, now I'm reaching for a snack. Sugar and everything I eat is a bit of weight off my back. Placebo effect really. Interminable. When will this ever end. Come on Eoghan. Go for the big boulders, then you can legitimately use handholds to pull you up. Why do I never, ever, ever learn, why don't I actually do some serious cardio work instead of swanning up with fitter mates and talk big man's talk about swatting a load of big hills in a day and then disintegrating on the first climb. I'm disintegrating now.

Adam was moving well and kept forging ahead. As the conditions closed in I started to curse him for going too far ahead - what if we lose each other - as well as myself for not keeping up. Finally, with a decent height climb done we reached a beallach. There was a smallish top in the way - we coud go either to the left or the right. Adam galloped off downhill to the left, me soon falling behind again.

"Bear right" I mouthed at him, then shouted. Don't we need to be heading up at some point or there'll be a lot of height to climb? No time to check the map, I need to try and keep up. Go right, for Christ's sake. He's stopped. He's waiting for me. There's a sheepish look on his face. "Gross navigational error" he says. We retrace our steps and pull our way back up the glen having lost an hour.

No harm done and soon we were above the snow line and looking at the twin Lochan a Braghad. Crampons inexpertly fitted and we set off up Ruadh Stac Mor. Neither of us had much experience with crampons or ice axes but the ascent wasn't too bad. Plod, plod, plod, steepish ground but with a side-on and slightly diagonal approach it wasn't too bad - occasional boulder fields getting in the way. At one point I stopped to change my ice axe into the other hand; I put my sunglasses between my teeth for a minute, only to look down and realise that the lenses had fallen out. I knew they couldn't be far away at all but couldn't see them straight away, and as I was on a pretty steep bit of terrain at the time I felt it might be unsafe to start faffing around looking for them, so had to let them go.

Lochan a' Braghad
We hit the summit of Ruadh Stac Mor - decent views but we were significantly behind schedule now and needed to push on quickly to get to the top of A' Mhaighdean and down off the high ground to find somewhere to camp before it got dark; it was now mid-afternoon. The first question was how to descend from Ruadh Stac Mor. The most direct route was a big scramble down. Tired, with heavy packs and in full winter conditions, I vetoed this idea quickly. The alternative was a very log way around with quite a bit of height loss that would have to be regained. Adam suggested that he's seen a possible line down if we started by dropping down to the north from the summit before turning west.

The descent was tough. Small boulders littered about 60% of the slope which made crampons no fun at all, but they were still necessary for the snow sections - the snow was hard enough that getting down it would be near impossible without them. One section was extremely steep.

Take your time, Eoghan. Get off safely and comfortably. Safely and comfortably. One foot at a time. Don't trip over your own feet at any rate. How many bloody boulders? Hate crampons on this...hate them....hate them. Ice axe adds nothing here. Should we have done this? Oh Jesus. This section is very, very steep. OK. It needs to be done. What's the best way to do this? Ankle muscles flexed to the max, lean back, backside out, head straight down the slope. Both hands on the ice axe ready for a self arrest. One foot in. The next foot...won't bite. The slope is so steep that gravity isn't on my side and the points just won't go in. I'm going to have to make a firmer step. That means goose-stepping with all my weight on one foot and my arse in the air. I splat my foot down as hard as it'll go. That bites. OK. Next step. This time I start to slip, can't get into the snow properly, axe shaft plunged in for balance, a temporary solution. Get your balance. Hyperventilating. No way back, Adam has already danced down this section so it should be doable. Breathe. Relax. Heart racing. Talking to myself. Get a grip. Be professional, be safe, technique. Another step, gingerly. Another step, another slip, this time I'm wanting to sit down and slide down but that would be lethal. Get myself sideways onto the boulders to one side, a temporary solution. Come down facing the slope? No, get on with it. The goose stepping feels unnatural and dangerous. Bitterly regretting this being the section to practise winter skills on. A TV screen flashes up in front of my eyes. There's a spokesman from Mountain Rescue on it - he's saying "Walkers need to ensure that they don't get out of their depth by having the wrong equipment or not knowing how to use it, or getting themselves onto dangerous terrain without having proper respect for the conditions." Will the camera pan to an image of a bloke with a broken leg eating a banana and grinning sheepishly, or to a bloke zipped up in a black plastic bag? FOR CHRIST'S SAKE EOGHAN, stop bloody whimpering. Twisted fantasies won't help you here. My wife flashes up in front of my eyes, she's calling me "Doodles" over and over again - she does this when she's worried about me. I start practising what I'll say to Adam at the bottom. "Sorry, mate. When I get tired I get clumsy and when I get clumsy I get nervous, so I ended up way outside my comfort zone." I say this out loud, over and over again, until it sounds bland and the wobble in my voice goes. I probably say it thirty times out loud. Another breather, another few steps and I'm off the steep ice. The boulders come as a relief in some ways, but they make choosing foot position even more important and my legs are shaking. Keep going, Eoghan. Keep going.

I've no idea how long it took me to get off that slope but I was in pieces. Vowing to get some winter skills practice in, I kept going from the beallach at the bottom and the plod up A' Mhaighdean was out of this world - featureless snowfields - we could be on the moon. The eastern slope to the summit is gentle and while I was still rather slow at least there was no real mental effort required, apart from one rather dodgy looking cornice which we gave a wide berth in case of avalanche risk.

The summit rendered us both (almost) speechless. The snow had abated and we had a 360 degree panorama, with superb visibility on all sides. An Teallach to the north, Slioch to the south, we could see over to Skye to the south west and countless Fannichs to the east. Fionn Loch stretched away to the west. We devoured the views, all other thoughts taken from our minds.

Oh my God.

And I mean "oh MY God". To the south, there was a break in the cloud and crepuscular rays shone through. If ever there was evidence that God lives in Wester Ross this was it. And with only the two of us around, it was like having a private audience with God.

The rest of the view wasn't too shabby either:

We felt we had earned this thanks to Saturday's wash-out. One of the most beautiful places in Scotland? Never mind Scotland, make that the world.

There wasn't much light left and we were the furthest possible point from the car at this stage, so we decided we'd need to push on and drop as much height as possible tonight. We dropped down into Gleann na Muice, got the first river crossing out of the way without needing to get wet feet, and trudged down through boggy ground as the dusk extended its tendrils.

Suddenly Adam crashed, exhausted. He hadn't taken on enough food. The ground was appallingly wet everywhere but we managed to find a spot that wasn't sitting in soup, although thick heather meant that getting tent pegs to grip was a tough challenge. Adam was chilling down and disappeared into the tent when it had only just taken shape - he was asleep with it only half pitched. I did a fairly shoddy job of a tent pitch which resulted in a lot of sag (and also me staying awake half the night convinced that we'd been blown away). I was going to cook up but the sight of Adam in his sleeping bag made my own warmth the only thing I cared about and after wolfing down half a packet of crunch creams I got into bed, fully clothed including down jacket, and only half-zipped up my bag.

The morning trudge back to the car felt interminable. It took an hour and a half of going through boggy hell before the river crossing. We stuck our heads into Shenavall once again - I've since paid for membership of the MBA, what a wonderful job they do - before heading back to the car; less than four-and-a-half hours at a good pace after a 0730 start.

We went to the Aquadome in Inverness for a shower; unfortunately we realised too late that showers are communal, but we were able to sneak into the gym where there are male-only showers. Fish and chips went down surprisingly badly, but after sticking our heads in to say hi to Gordon at Craigdon, it was time to head back to the Smoke and reflect on an utterly fantastic weekend.

Equipment notes

Being a 3-day trip in full winter conditions into some of the harshest, most remote terrain in Britain it was inevitable that our packs would be heavy and indeed they were. As it turned out some things were redundant - my cold weather clothing was barely touched.

My usual favourite bits of kit performed admirably as usual. My Crux AK57 rucksack, in particular, made a heavy load bearable, and did a fine job of keeping the worst of the rain out of the interior. I had slight tremors about using newly resoled boots, but LSR had done great work.

Despite the temperatures - just below freezing at high levels with strong wind chill in places - I was absolutely fine most of the time with a thick base layer (Helly Hansen warm) and waterproof. In order to save weight I didn't bring an additional windproof this time. As for gloves, I am becoming increasingly attached to a winter combination of Powerstretch liners/Dachstein mitts/Extremities Tuffbags waterproof overmitts these days. I bought a new pair of Powerstretch gloves this time - Black Diamond heavyweight liner. At £30 they were a good bit more than I'd been intending to spend, but were absolutely brilliant: warm enough to use as a standalone glove almost all the time (the Dachsteins remained untouched), with a very long cuff which fitted snugly over the base layer cuff, a decent simple leather palm and touchscreen-friendly fingertips which 3 years ago I would have sniffed at as a gimmick but are becoming increasingly essential these days. I also used a "polar hood" given to me as a present for the first time - I used it mostly as a neck gaiter and pulled it over my face in more extreme weather. It could have turned into a balaclava had conditions deteriorated much further. It was a lovely bit of kit, versatile and comfortable and it made going much more pleasant.

If you're approaching Fisherfield from the north, the crossing of Abhainn Strath na Sealga and/or Abhainn Gleann na Muice is unavoidable. Do pay attention to the weather forecast and bear in mind that the time lag is short so heavy rain or snowmelt one day will result in the rivers going into spate pretty quickly, but the next day might well be OK. We had taken a single pair of croc-style plastic sandals in an intermediate size to share (£5 from Shoe Zone and weighing about 250g for the pair) but on hearing the forecast had left them behind in the car. From my perspective this was a mistake. The water is very cold but I found most discomfort from the stony riverbed - the stones aren't small and sharp, but medium-sized and round, which really press into the soles of your feet. I would take them without hesitation next time. Adam had a pair of walking poles which really helped the crossing. When water levels were normal the crossing was achievable with a little care. A light travel towel to dry off feet after the crossing was a great luxury.

Given the remote location and conditions, I took more care than usual to ensure that we had adequate first aid and survival kit. Normally when carrying a tent I don't bother to carry a survival bag, but this was packed. One thing which I'd do in hindsight for a 2/3 night trip in potentially hostile conditions is take several spare tent pegs - if a couple are lost on the first night and it gets a bit blowy the next night then we could be in trouble.

My new phone (Motorola/Google Nexus 6), with data/wifi turned off and battery saver turned on, lasted extremely well - after 2.5 days it was down to 40% battery with a few photos taken and GPS used once or twice. I was extremely impressed by this. Adam had full signal (including 3G) at the top of A' Mhaighdean! Putting my camera directly into the pocket of my waterproof without any proper protection apart from its padded case was foolish - in future in the wet I'll make sure to put it alongside my phone in a 1L drybag and put that in my jacket pocket. In general I found myself carrying more than usual in pockets; apart from looking silly I actually felt more in control of things that way. Waterproof overmitts lived in one pocket with the (laminated!) map; hat, polar hood/neck gaiter and gloves in another; snacks in another; and phone/camera in another.

With no pubs or shops anywhere, all food needs to be carried and this was a major weight. I always start my day with porridge and coffee nowadays. Instant porridge needs to be transferred from their tubs (too bulky) into freezer bags. I've tried Oat So Simple and Sainsbury's own brand, but I find that it's definitely worth paying a bit extra for Alpen which are far nicer - I think there's more sugar in there, but the milk powder is also creamier, so the overall experience is more pleasant. Regarding coffee I've no preference for Nescafe or Kenco, but personally I prefer the 3-in-1 sachets which have sugar, even though I'm not normally a sugar-in-coffee person. I had loads of old hot chocolate sachets of various brands and Adam did a grand job of tasting them - he reports that Bournville > Galaxy >> Cadbury standard Dairy Milk. Soup is of course an essential - most of them are OK, the only golden rule being avoid anything with croutons in them at all costs (minestrone is disgusting). Other than that we mostly went with curry and rice.

One thing that there is an abundance of in the Fisherfield forest is good supplies of running water so in order to keep weight down I wouldn't recommend carrying more than a litre or so per person at any given time.