IntroductionIn just two weeks I am off to make a solo attempt to climb Aconcagua – a trip for which I have been preparing for approaching 2 years. I haven’t been higher than Mont Blanc 4810m for 20 years, nor have I spent prolonged periods tent based over a similar time scale. So there has been a need to get do some training, not least to see if I am up to coping with altitude again but also to get back into the expedition mind-set again: to be able to plan for all the little details which have to be addressed to spend 3 weeks tent based in a harsh environment. And I have to get it right. I have climbed a few summits solo – but I have never set out on a prolonged expedition on my own before.
I have had a ball so far, with a trip to the European Alps in September 2009 (TR Alps 2009: sunny Saas summits & single return to Mont Blanc), a trip to the Scottish Highlands in September 2010 (TR Of vampires, mountains & men: Scottish Highlands 2010) – and I wrote an article on Expedition Medicine to get myself up to speed with developments in the field of high altitude etc. And now the latest has been a superb few days back in the Scottish Highlands – coinciding with coldest conditions for December for 80 years – for my final shake down before the big one…
PrologueI have seen a few changes of season, from summer to winter – fifty as it happens. But I have never before been so struck with how much things can change - in just 3 short months.
I am up in the Scottish Highlands, the Mamore range to be precise, climbing the slopes above Kinlochleven, which 3 months ago were lush and green, bathed in warm September sunlight. Back then I had spent several days up on the heights above these slopes, chased from the valleys by swarms of voracious midges. Apart from one day of rain, it was warm and balmy – and I dozed in the sun, clad in just t-shirt, up on top of the Ben. And I encountered people. Each day I encountered several hard bitten Munroists: that fanatical breed of men and women, intent on topping all 300 odd over 3000 feet high summits decreed worthy of inclusion on the late Sir Hugh Munroe’s tables.
But now the slopes are white with a touch of gold, bathed in low angle winter sunlight, in the frigid cold air of the coldest December for decades. In the mornings and evenings the gold becomes pink. The beauty is breath-taking. I am in a winter wonderland, ploughing my way upwards through drifts of virginal snow, whose sparkling surfaces are occasionally mid-thigh deep. There are no tracks visible other than my own. Nobody else is here.
It is hard work forging my solitary pathway upwards – but I don’t mind since it is so stunningly beautiful. And I am also carried away on the sapphires and emeralds flowing out of my iPod – the new Andre Rieu album, so totally appropriate to my surroundings.
Day OneYesterday there were other tracks. I followed boot prints made by another solitary hill goer, up past the deserted Mamore Lodge, and up into this remote valley, cradled in the bosom of the middle section of the Mamore chain of mountains. Those tracks made the going slightly easier and I managed to make perhaps a mile of further progress into the upper part of the valley before the light turned from golden to pink – and it was time to stop and make camp.
As I pitched my little orange tent I met the owner of the tracks I had been following. It was a French-Canadian man, in his mid twenties I guessed, and he was now descending. He said he had made it up as far as the ridge over a thousand feet above us – and had looked down into upper Glen Nevis over the other side. But, lacking ice-axe and crampons, he had not thought it prudent to go further: to climb along the ridge and upwards towards the nearest summit. I thanked him for making convenient tracks for me to follow the next day and he gave a short laugh before bidding me farewell – and ploughing off through the drifts, back down in the direction of Kinlochleven – out of sight now, beyond the entrance to the valley.
During the night a strong wind had sprung up and battered the tent for a few hours and then died away before dawn. A fine dusting of spin-drift had jetted into the tent through the two little ventilation ports, despite mosquito netting. Feeling it settling on my face, I had had to close the ports by pulling draw cords tight. I was only just warm enough in the four season bag I plan to use up on Aconcagua.
The night at this time of year was 15 hours long – a long time to be not quite warm. When it became light enough to see again I found that the winter wonderland outside the tent had come to join me inside. Frost sparkled from the walls and from every surface, including my sleeping bag – and was added to by the spin drift which had got in before I closed the ventilation ports.
Compensation for the mild discomfort of the night was the astonishing beauty of my environment, when I unzipped the tent door. The mountain tops were glowing pink in the subdued light of just after dawn. New drifts of powdery snow had re-distributed themselves all around me and there was no sign of man nor beast anywhere … until shortly I spied a small group of red deer, high up on the slopes above.
I fired up my fairly new MSR stove, which I had tried out for the first time back in September. In moments it was roaring like a 747 engine and moments after that I was nursing a mug of steaming coffee and waiting for a similarly steaming bowl of oat meal & raspberry to re-hydrate properly. When assembling the stove I had noted that it was cold enough for skin to stick to metal – and I was pleased to have the thin silk gloves I had purchased a few days before.
Day Two: across Na GruagaicheanIt is a few hours later and now I am laden like a pack horse, forging my way up through the snow drifts, listening to Andre Rieu. The tracks made by my French-Canadian acquaintance of yesterday, are all gone – filled by all the spindrift that blew around during the night. But I am not bothered. It is so beautiful and I have no set agenda, no particular place I have to reach today. I will go where I go.
But several times I plunge into snow up to my waist, as I cross depressions which normally would be streams. It is hard work crawling out, with over 20kg on my back.
At last I make it onto a spur, blown clean of powdery surface snow. Here I can kick steps in firm snow just a few inches deep for the most – and I start making steady progress upwards, towards the now golden heights.
The only slight niggle is that my feet are cold. I am wearing my new Asolo double plastics – trying them out. But during the night I left them outside my sleeping bag and they both got dusted with spindrift and any moisture in the inners from yesterday, froze. And now I am paying the price.
About an hour and a half after leaving my camp site I reach the ridge – and a new vista opens out in front of me. To my left, is the ‘Ring of Steal’ – a horse-shoe of 5 summits which I traversed 3 months earlier, on my way to the western extremity of the Mamore chain. Straight ahead, sculptured snowy slopes plunge down 2,500 feet into upper Glen Nevis – to the place where I was attacked by voracious midges 3 months ago. And on the far side of that, more snowy slopes rise nearly 4000 feet – up to the frosty point of Carn Mor Dearg. I can see the start of the famous arête – but the other extremity, leading to mighty Ben Nevis, is hidden from view by An Gearanoch, the first ‘nail’ in the Ring of Steal.
I drink from one of my water bottles. The water is already partially frozen and gives me a momentary ‘ice-cream headache’. I make a mental note to purchase insulating covers for the water bottles…
I snap some pictures of the glorious scenes before me – pleased that the camera seems to be working fine, despite the extreme cold. Then I snap on crampons – first time I have worn them in anger, on these particular boots – and I am pleased to note they are adjusted correctly.
As I progressively inch higher and higher, every so often I pause and check my mobile phone. There has been no reception since I entered the high valley yesterday afternoon – and ceased to be line of sight with Kinlochleven. My wife is worried about me blundering around in these conditions on my own and wanted me to phone whenever possible. Remembering how it was in the summer, I did warn her that reception could be hit and miss. And it is: I am now line of sight with a little bit of the town, nearly 3000 feet below now, but still no ‘bars’ on the little screen.
I continue crunching my way higher, still loving the extraordinary beauty around me – and having exhausted Andre Rieu, I’m now listening to the haunting strains of Lesiem, another recent discovery for the iPod.
Up in the snow it is much slower going than when these slopes were of grass and shale. But I am pleased to note that I feel fit – that all the training at the Gym has been doing something. One of the curses of being fifty is the number of nagging injuries I seem to pick up these days. I have battled with tendonitis in the big tendon below my left knee-cap for the last 3 years. Two years ago it reduced me to being barely able to walk. With the right kind of training it improved – but it still smoulders – and threatens to come raging back. In the other knee I tore a cartilage – and had to have surgery a few months ago. The kind of training that helps my knees hurts my back – and periodically that seizes up. And now I have threatening pain in my left shoulder – which I have self-diagnosed as sub-acromial impingement from (yet another) inflamed tendon. But so far the slow measured effort of plodding with 20kg on my back seems OK – no particular part of me is protesting – although I have noted the need to be careful of my shoulder, hefting on my heavy pack.
Presently I step up onto the top. It is a glorious little summit – like a small snowy platform up in the sky. Except it isn’t the summit, quite. Ahead of me the snowy platform blends into a horizontal section of wind sculptured crest – which then dips sharply down into unseen depths – but then rises up, even more steeply to a another summit. A glance at the map indicates that this summit is about 300 meters distant and 20 meters higher.
I am now line of sight with most of Kinlochleven. A quick re-check of the mobile… two bars – just. I phone my wife.
“Hi – it’s me!”
“Oh hi! Where are you? Are you ok? You didn’t phone me last night…“ Leila sounds distant and reception crackly and precarious.
“Yeah – sorry!” I decide to answer in reverse order “There was no reception at all where I was – and there only just is here – and I might well lose you – so don’t worry if I disappear… I am up on a mountain top. It’s beautiful – but very cold… “
My wife is also feeling the cold. The unprecedented snow in Scotland is in England as well – and conditions are so bad she hasn’t been able to drive 13 miles into Leeds to work – so Leila is working from home, using her lap-top. But our boiler failed just before I left to come up here. So she is at home in the coldest early December for over 80 years, with no central heating or hot water.
“… crackle, crackle… coming to fix boil… tomorrow…”
“Leila you are breaking up! Can you hear me?”
Intermittent intelligible sound suggests that she can – and that she is missing me.
“Missing you too – and I wish I could show you what I am seeing now!” I thought of texting her a picture from my mobile – but a cold wind is beginning to play around the mountain top and my fingers beginning to freeze – too cold to manage the relatively complex task of taking a mobile picture, saving it – and sending it.
“Leila – I’m going to head off again” I say, aware she can hear me still – better than I can hear her “Might try again from the next top – but don’t worry if I can’t. From then on I definitely won’t be able to call!”
I can see that my descent from the next top will be away from Kinlochleven, so there will be no line of sight with any transmitters for certain. “Might be a couple of days until I can try again… so say Hi to Mr Woof” referring to our big loveable golden retriever Jake “ Love you loads… “
There is a burst of static in reply, but I can just distinguish “Love you too!”
I put my mobile away again and blow on my frozen fingers, trying to force warm breath through the thin silk of my inner gloves, before putting the outer back on. Fingers still burning slightly I shrug my back pack on, grip my poles and start to stride purposefully towards the drop off.
After a short distance the slope steepens still further and some rocks are visible, poking through the snow. A tiny col is just beyond. With a bit of flat ground a mere ten feet below I get a little careless… and with a jolt, I hit another submerged rock with my body weight too far forwards – and I over balance. Almost in slow motion I fall forwards, somersault over a small rock step – and land on my back in a deep snow drift close beside the little col.
Stupid fool! I berate myself. You can’t afford to do dumb things like that! I think about doing the same on a narrower piece of crest, tumbling down one of the precipitous mountainsides…
For long moments I am pinned down, limbs free-wheeling in empty air, like some grotesque giant beetle. I am anchored by my heavy back pack, which is buried in the drift behind me - and I am covered in freezing cold powder snow. Some of the icy stuff has even got down my neck, like a nasty school play-ground prank.
Eventually through a combination of flailing and clumsy lunges, I manage to rotate onto my front. But even righted, it is not all over – since I struggle to get enough purchase on the freezing powder to be able to stand up. But eventually I do. I walk out of the drift and onto the firmer surface of the col.
Anxiously I check my camera – still hanging from its strap – but the case is caked in snow. And snow has got inside… I am forced to spend quarter of an hour painstakingly blowing and dusting snow dust off my camera, as well as slapping and shaking the case to dislodge more deposits still clinging to the inside. I make a mental note to get a little brush for cleaning the camera, as well as a new container, which zips closed.
And I also berate myself for leaving my heavy Aconcagua grade mitts behind on this trip. I have brought silk inners and then just felt gloves, for an outer layer – albeit thick ones. But thinking ‘it is just Scotland in early December’ I had anticipated temperatures maybe down to minus five if I was lucky. I will later find out that in this almost unprecedented cold snap, temps have been recorded in the area, down in the minus twenties centigrade. I have been in similar conditions in Scotland, but it was later in the season and nearly 30 years ago!
Cleaning my camera and case has got snow all over my silk inner gloves, which are now wet but beginning to freeze in the icy breeze. And there is snow inside my felt outers. What with my still frozen boots and now gloves as well, I am somewhat uncomfortable as I prepare to move off again.
I scramble – carefully – up a steep slope of little rock steps interspersed with more powder snow. After a short while I step up onto the new summit. And when I turn round I can see that I am now significantly higher than on the original top, now 300 meters distant. I think of trying to phone my wife again, but with a bit of wind blowing spin-drift across my path and with still frozen fingers, I decide to just keep going. Besides I am no more line-of-sight to Kinlochleven then I was on the other top, when mobile reception was poor.
With vague ideas of perhaps reaching the next summit, I start to pick my way along the picturesque crest. But it is slow going. Sometimes I can make brisk progress teetering along on steep slopes of packed hard snow to the left of the crest – but quite often I am forced to plough through the meringue, which is anything up to groin deep.
The light has turned golden again, with a tinge of rosiness. Although it is not even 3 o’clock, I am reminded that I will only have about another hour and a half of useable daylight left. I start to wonder where I will stop for the night. The next summit should be reachable, but where to from there? I would definitely be out of daylight if I tried for the next summit after that – which I’d have to cross before being able to descend somewhere suitable to camp.
A while later I encounter a small level rectangular snow patch between two little rock gendarmes on the ridge. It looks purpose built to take my little tent and I am tempted to camp here. It is certainly a scenic place – would make for a dramatic photo. But anchorages are doubtful and were the wind to get up, the site is horribly exposed.
I scramble, wade and crampon on-wards.
The sun is definitely setting now. It is back to winter wonderland again, with glorious rosy golden light sparkling off myriad twinkly ice crystals around me. I am close to that point where the ridge will start to rise up towards the next top again. If I keep on going I will get benighted and will end up blundering around by head-torch light, trying to find somewhere to camp. The ridge is far too exposed a place to camp, even if I were to find another level enough spot. So I have to drop below the level of the ridge.
To my left, darkening slopes drop precipitously into deep shadow for about a thousand feet before the angle eases. And I’d have to drop still further to find somewhere suitable to camp. Looking on the sunny side, to my right, it looks more hopeful. There is a less steep slope and then there is a sort of a shelf about 100 meters below the crest which looks horizontal. That is the obvious answer. The only problem is that this is the side of the ridge where all the very soft snow is – and I don’t want to trigger an avalanche, getting down there.
I turn back towards the slope and start to try and plough my way back up to the crest. But it is easier said than done. For worrying moments all my efforts seem to achieve is to dig me further into the slope. I try to sink my poles in as deeply as I can and then pull on them. I curse my impatience, because it looks as if conditions are better about 40 meters further along the ridge. There looks to be a sort of rib descending at a slightly easier angle. I think the surface snow may be thinner on the rib. But first I have dig myself out of the pit I have dug for myself.
Bit by bit I start to make progress. I feel more like a mole than a climber – and for the second time today I am covered from head to toe in freezing powder snow. Once I finally regain the crest of the ridge I spend some time removing powder snow from my camera – also for the second time today.
Conditions over at the rib are better. The soft snow is merely knee deep and underneath there is a layer I can kick my crampons into. And it is just soft powdery snow again – not organised into soft slab like that awful stuff behind me. But I do wonder how it will be to ascend – if I want to regain the crest tomorrow morning.
I decide to park that thought and focus on the possibility that within the next half hour I will hopefully have the tent up and be some way towards a hot brew and a meal.
After about ten minutes more floundering I find myself on hard wind scoured snow-ice. A short while after that I reach the shelf – about the size of a football pitch. I select a spot on a little prominence overlooking Loch Eilde Mor – a lake about 2000 feet below. It is a beautiful site. The only annoyance is that there is no stream anywhere near – and even if there were, it would be frozen hard. And the small amount of water remaining in my water bottles is likewise – frozen hard. So it looks like I get to practice the over-rated joy of melting snow and ice.
I stamp out a level area in the snow, get the tent out, find my patch isn’t big enough and stamp some more. As light turns to pink, just prior to fading all together, I have my little orange home up – and sleeping things flung inside. The air temperature, icy already, becomes bitingly cold. I tear off my gortex jacket and fling on my duvet and a dry pair of felt gloves over my damp silk ones.
I am operating by head-torch light now. It is pitch dark – and yet it is not long past 5pm. I clamber into the tent and wrestle off my outer boots – to find out why my feet have been cold all day. My inner boots are still frozen – there is a hard layer of ice all round the toes, 1-2mm thick and actually quite hard to scrape off. But scrape it off I must, since I know I have to bring the inners into my sleeping bag to thaw them out. I put on a dry pair of thick socks and shove the wet ones up under my jacket against my chest – hoping they will be dry by the morning.
Finally I go through the range of violent contortions needed to get my aging and somewhat un-bendy self into my sleeping bag, along with 2 pairs of wet gloves, a couple of cooling water bottles, a pair of still frozen part de-iced inner boots – and not forgetting the pair of wet socks. I cannot face bringing the camera in as well – so wrap it up in gortex along with one of the warm water bottles in the hope that this will be enough to keep both from freezing during what I know is going to be a long cold night. Somehow I manage to shed my duvet jacket and wad it up into something approximating a pillow. Steam billows around my head in the torch light – only to freeze as it hits the wall of the tent, which is already beginning to sparkle with ice rime. Hmmm – I thought that Gortex was supposed to be better than this. The single skin tent doesn’t seem to be at all ‘breathable’ in these low temperatures.
By the time I have got myself properly organised it is around 6pm. Somewhat early to be going to bed, but not exactly any alternative up here, 2700 feet up, miles from anywhere and in the freezing blackness of this highland December night. I try to read – freezing first one had then the other, as I cannot get my book to stay propped at the right angle – so I have to hold it with at the least one damp silk gloved hand.
An hour or so passes and it is becoming hard for the book to keep me distracted away from all the discomfort. I am still not warm – and my feet are frankly, still cold. I realise the foot of my sleeping bag is up against the cold wall of the tent and hunch up a bit to try and keep it away. I give up on the book and bring both hands inside the bag to tuck against my chest. I am struck by how clammy and cold it feels inside my sleeping bag – like the inside of a refrigerator.
I stow my head-torch and then pull the draw-cord of the bag tight so that only my nose and mouth are exposed.
Somehow the hours pass, in a series of light dozes. I never feel warm, just slightly chilled and clammy. The wet socks and pair of gloves on my chest stay wet. The inner boots do at least thaw. At some point I have to pee and do the deed swiftly, kneeling by head-torch light, thanking heaven that I remembered to pack a pee bottle. I note that my sleeping bag is rimed with frost, especially at the head end.
Round about 5am with the cold in my toes no longer tolerable, I sacrifice my almost comfortable pillow and haul my duvet jacket inside my sleeping bag and thrust it down towards my feet. Some more contortions enable me to get it draped around both. I remember that lesson from my old mentor in the mountains, who told me that the only way to get cold feet warm was to stick them together, pooling warmth. It works. After another hour or so my feet are almost warm. The downside is that I no longer have a comfortable pillow. I make do with a hard knobbly outer boot, slightly softened by a wadded up pair of gortex salopettes. I make a mental note to get hold of a suitable pillow.
Day 3: two more Mamore tops and returnIt is with some relief that I finally note warm looking, if not feeling, light coming through the wall of the tent – around 8am. It has been a long cold night – and I am pleased to think that nights on Aconcagua won’t be as long. Frost sparkles from every surface inside the tent – including all over my sleeping bag. I make yet another mental note: I should bring a gortex bivvy bag as well as enough bags to put everything in, to protect from frost.
When I finally unzip the tent it is to all the glory of a winter sunrise. The astonishing beauty makes up for the long miserable night. Slowly and even more stiffly than usual, I bend myself out of my sleeping bag and into my outer clothes. Once on, my boots feel somewhat better than yesterday – not having them full of ice makes a difference.
Despite the night in a deep freeze the stove comes to life with its customary jet engine roar. At some point I am nursing a hot mug of sweetened coffee and in due course there is a bowl full of warm oatmeal with raspberries, courtesy of Mountain House.
Cold and stiff from my long night it takes an age to get going. But finally around 11, I am rolling up the tent, all stiffened with ice – and trying to cram it into its stuff sack. I heft on my back pack when all is secured. My crampons are back on. Threatening clouds are still materialising here and there, but instead of walking towards the edge of my snowy shelf, to pick out a suitable descent to the lake – I find myself turning back towards the tracks I made dropping down from the ridge yesterday.
In the different lighting I can see more easily where the surface snow is blown away, exposing the firmer old snow. I have to weave around a bit, but make steady progress crunching up the frozen surface alongside the drifts I waded through. About 100 feet below the ridge crest I run out of good surface and am forced to return to my original tracks. But they are reasonably usable. It is slightly harder going with a layer of soft stuff to kick through, but I make better progress than I would have expected – and soon regain the ridge.
I decide I will try and keep going along the ridge towards the next top. There is a bit of a rocky scramble at the start, but then it is much the same as I encountered yesterday – soft meringue to the right, harder snow ice to the left of the crest.
But there is still some visibility when I reach the top – which at 3484 feet is slightly higher than I went yesterday.
From here there is a choice of two ridges. One heads further into the range, dipping for some distance and then rising to the highest summit in the Mamore range, Binnein Mor, which is 1130 meters high or, for those who prefer; 3,706 feet. In that direction the ridge looks attractive. But I can also see that from the angle, compared to the ridge I am on, it is less directly exposed to the wind – and there are drifts of snow, almost like sand-dunes most of the way up. And in white out there is the potential to blunder too close to the left side of the ridge, where there is some cornice formation.
The other ridge is broad and mostly blown clear of surface snow and heads out of the range towards a lesser top of just 3,136 feet – called Sgor Eilde Beag. Like in the summer, I struggle to get my tongue round these names. It is just a kilometre to this top and if the clouds really came in, although there is a big drop to the left, I could follow a compass bearing without risk of inadvertently blundering onto a cornice.
Looking underneath the lowering clouds remote, wild and inhospitable terrain stretches off as far as I can see. Most dramatic of all, in the middle distance at the foot of a conical looking peak, there is a frozen lake all covered in snow. It looks so attractive that I am tempted to try and reach it by descending to it from the top of Sgor Eilde Beag. But I dismiss the idea since the slopes are steep and rocky according to the map – and I wouldn’t be able to visually check them out before committing to descending them.
I think about the descent down to the reservoir. I was able to see it in profile from my camp. It looked steep and bouldery – and with soft snow may be unpleasant and awkward. But I could see no major obstacles and if the weather closed in I am sure I could crawl down it if I had to.
Clouds are now obscuring most of the tops over 1000 meters now and some dark grey tendrils are now swirling around beneath me, in rising winds. I start to crunch down gentle slopes of wind scoured ice, towards my final top. I have to skirt a few frozen boulder fields and occasionally my crampons break through an icy crust to grate on submerged rock. After half a kilometre of descent, there is a gentle rise again, up to a large cairn at the top of Sgor Eilde Beag. I take one last look back at the 3 previous tops I have traversed on this little trip. Then I head straight out in the direction of the main valley and large reservoir, to where the ground abruptly drops away.
Knees bent, heals kicked carefully in and poles akimbo I plod down the slope. Often my path seems to be blocked by a field of awkward looking frozen boulders, but each time enough new ground becomes revealed, to show a snowy alternative – and for the most I can weave around between the boulder fields.
After a thousand feet of descent the angle starts to ease and for the first time I can see the entire slope down to the bottom. And gratifyingly the snow cover thins and boulder fields become replaced by frozen tussock, which is easy to descend on crampons.
I pause to take stock and look straight ahead: perhaps another 500 feet below and half a mile distant is the big reservoir. There should be a major trail following the nearest shore – and heading to my right several miles round the corner towards Kinlochleven. But I cannot see it at all. And although the wide expanse of wilderness stretching round there is approximately flat, it is also hummocky and currently strewn with banks of drifted snow. If I cannot find the trail it is going to be very slow and tedious picking my way through it. It is already mid-afternoon and with darkness just an hour and a half away, I will probably be spending another night out in the tent.
But then I happen across what is clearly another path nearly buried, down near the bottom of the slope. This summer route is clearly marked on the map, but I didn’t expect to find it in these conditions. If I can follow it then it will lead to the other path, leading from the end of the lake, and through the wilderness to Kinlochleven.
The path heads off in a descending traverse in the direction I want to go and it cuts into the still quite steep hillside. But it is almost completely banked up by drifted snow, which has become continuous with the slope. As such, I can avoid having to wade by keeping to the outer, left hand edge, where there is a convenient rim of frozen turf to walk on. At intervals there are traps for the unwary in the form of frozen streams crossing the route – so it is still worth keeping my crampons on.
I am now blundering along over hummocks and through deep snow drifts – and it is obvious I have lost the path. Instead of trying to battle my way obliquely across the disordered terrain I turn and head straight down towards the tip of the lake. Briefly I make good progress along a shallow gulley created by a stream, now frozen solid. But all too soon it becomes too rocky and I am forced to clamber up to the top of the left bank, where I find bits of a deer-path to follow. But it is not consistent and all too often I am scrambling over hummocks of frozen heather and now more boulders.
Now that I am almost down on the flat, crampons are becoming a liability. I haven’t seen any patches of ice in a little while so I pause to take them off.
With crampons stowed I set off again. Just as I am telling myself how much easier going it is without spikes snagging on roots and things, both feet shoot out from under me – in a classic banana skin Wo-oaagh! I land hard on my behind, slammed down by my heavy back pack. The sudden violence of the fall knocks the wind out of me and I feel sudden anger, then wry amusement at how I would have looked to a spectator. But there isn’t even as much as a sheep nearby to witness my discomfiture.
As I haul myself to my feet I can see that I had hit a flat sheet of silvery ice, exposed now from under a skim of powder snow. Standing in a defensive crouch I carefully probe the extent of the little trap, using a walking pole. It is about 2 feet square and easy to step across. For a moment I consider putting my crampons back on – but I decide swifter progress is worth risk of an occasional banana-skin moment.
Another half kilometre of exasperating terrain takes me to within a hundred meters of the tip of the lake. And there is the path I am trying to find. It crosses the frozen stream I have been following via a little bridge. And it is not so much a path as a 4 wheel drive track. Strange that I couldn’t see it from above – but it is quite easy to follow down here, despite between 6 inches and a foot of soft snow overlaying. Tracks and droppings suggest some deer must have found it easier going on this track as well.
The sun is setting now and I have about an hour of daylight left to carry out about a one and a half hour snowy walk. I will be descending the last thousand feet in darkness – which will be no hardship. In the snow, I probably won’t even need to break out my head-torch – and low down I will even have some illumination from street lighting.
I am focussed on getting back to civilisation now. On my very first night, I stayed at the MacDonald Hotel, right at the start of the route, at the edge of the town. The cheery proprietor had let me leave my car there and had said there would be a room and a hot meal for me if I wanted it on my return. Actually, it was just as well she was happy for me to leave my car – which was buried and immovable under a foot of new snow when I set out!
Pleased to no longer having to worry about route finding I stride of into the sunset – literally, since I am now heading due west. But although easy to follow, it is still hard work plodding through the snow. Occasionally deer tracks provide some easier going, but for the most I am continuing to break my own trail. I get into a rhythm, poles going, legs pumping, even deep breaths – and Andre Rieu is back, sending swirls of crystal notes about my ears via the iPod.
It is a steady easy angled uphill for at least a mile. Then I round a corner and surprise a deer. It is a large graceful hind and she had been grazing on something, down at the edge of the track. She doesn’t take flight immediately, but pauses to take stock of me, evaluating the possibility that I pose a threat to her. I try and look as harmless as possible – about 50 meters away from her. But she decides she is not entirely happy and without effort starts to glide up the hillside. She doesn’t gallop off – but nonetheless seems to ease her way up that steep hillside at a rate I am envious of.
I acknowledge to myself that the hind cannot be alone. I wonder where her herd is and, mystified for a moment, start combing the hillside with my eyes - searching for her companions.
Finally I spot the rest of her herd. They are a very long way up the slope – about four of them that I can see. I can just make out a pair of antlers on one. Although so far separated from them, it is not going to take long for the hind to catch them up. In the time it took me to locate them, she is already a third of the way up towards them.
Gripping my poles I start walking again. The track deviates into a gulley with yet another frozen stream and then swings out to where I first spotted the hind. When I reached the spot where she stood, there are a plethora of deer tracks and droppings, also great patches where the ground is laid bare. I can only assume that there was some choice foraging here under the snow.
I continue to look about me as I continue my journey. Behind me the bigger peaks are becoming hidden behind heavy dark clouds. But ahead there are big gaps in the cloud, revealing the lower peaks either side of the big sea-loch – and also a glorious sunset. The light is already almost too dim for a hand held photo. So I stop to snap one last picture looking in the direction of Kinlochleven, to catch the scene.
Back to ‘line of sight’ again, I stop and dig out my mobile. I get to speak to my wife for the first time since I phoned from the lower top of Na Gruagaichean, two days earlier. Leila sounds relieved to know I am on my way down – and she tells me that the boiler is now fixed, that the house is cosy and warm again, but that there is still too much snow for her to be able to get to work. I tell her I plan to return tomorrow – and she is worried that I may have some difficulty getting back. With weather signs suggesting more snow, I fear she may be right.
I phone the MacDonald Hotel. A cheery voice assures me yes, I can stay the night again – and that there is a roaring fire going in the bar, if I want to have a meal there. And they will put the heater on in the bedroom that will be reserved for me. After three days of arctic conditions this is all very attractive. I make a further mental note: there will not be this sort of comfort at Aconcagua base-camp - I should really sleep in the Hotel car-park… but I don’t stay with this thought for long.
Fingers now cold in thin silk gloves, I put my phone away, put on my thicker gloves and move off again. The sun is well set and night has returned, but in the snow and with illumination from below, I can still see quite easily – and I don’t need my head-torch. I can see that I have reached the corner of the long side valley I entered three days ago, so I have nearly gone full circle. The track now swings round the corner and away from the town for a few hundred meters, before crossing the main river of the valley and turning back again. On the other side of the bridge, I recognise the gate through a deer fence, which I went through on that first day. There are a few signs of my tracks still discernable, but mostly they are obscured by drifted snow.
Turning my back on the gate I follow the route downwards at gentle angle of descent towards the orange glow of Kinlochleven. About 15 minutes of plodding through still moderately deep snow and I reach the caretaker’s cottage to the Mamore Lodge. On my way up I had passed the extraordinarily hairy care taker – like a huge beard on legs. He had grunted a taciturn greeting and then gone about his business, shovelling snow. I don’t see him now, but then a medium sized dog comes hurtling out from somewhere, out-raged and challenging me for setting foot on his territory. About 10 meters ahead yellow light abruptly spills from an opening doorway and, adding to the cacophony, a human voice is bellowing something to the effect of ‘get back inside’. The dog abruptly stops and slinks away, through the open doorway. As I draw level, the door is rapidly closing, but I glimpse the beard again. The door is closed before I get a chance to offer a greeting.
From here on, it is easier going. A vehicle has been on the track a few days earlier and created twin channels of compacted snow. I am back down amongst trees now – all ghostly with adherent snow. I can still see quite easily since orange light from the distant town is filtering through the branches – but also now reflected off a low overcast. So far as I can make out, cloud cover has become total, since the glorious sunset I photographed, about an hour ago. And it has become distinctly warmer, in the way it often does before the weather breaks.
I pass the Mamore Lodge a few moments later. It is a big grand building, set in a clearing in the forest. The windows are dark and the car park out the front deserted apart from deep drifts of windblown snow.
The track continues to descend and wind round the ghostly pine clad hill-side, closer and closer to the orange glow. As I expected, I can easily see all the way down. It takes about another half hour to reach the main road. All I have to do is cross it and I am back where it all began, at the MacDonald Hotel. Before going in I note that whilst I have been away snow in the car park has either been cleared or become compacted enough to be able to get my car out. But with the overcast I fear it may snow again before morning. I decide to worry about that when it happens – and step inside to warmth, a friendly greeting from Frances, proprietor of the Hotel – and then a bath and a hot meal.
During the rest of the long night, the temperature nudges just above freezing and at low level it doesn’t snow, but rains. When I look out there is wall to wall grey cloud and whilst the landscape is still mostly white, the car park and main road is now a mass of churned up grey slush. After an excellent breakfast I thank Frances and her husband for a comfortable stay and get on the road. Driving conditions are tolerable, but slow in the slush. Later, way down south and back on the motor ways, conditions become distinctly treacherous around Glasgow. Scores of abandoned and still partially buried cars adorn either side of the carriageway, which is only just open. On the radio the Scottish Transport Minister is getting a lambasting for failing to respond to the snow crisis.