Prologue: Glen Nevis, Scotland. September 2010.
They are out there, waiting to get me. Billions of them. Of that I have no doubt.
During the night hundreds made suicide attacks on my only weapon of defence. And somehow they managed to disable it – the pump action is no longer working.
I don’t know what to do. I’m relatively safe in here. But I can’t stay forever. Somehow I am going to have to get packed up and get the hell out of here without being annihilated. But the canny wee beasties are massing out there in the semi darkness of dawn, I can even hear them.
I am McDoomed.
My only weapon of defence is a single 100ml pump spray of Avon Skin So Soft – hastily purchased the other evening, just before I set out on this journey. I had not had time to get anything in Yorkshire before driving up but had decided that the Morrison’s in Fort William would have something…
Avon Skin So Soft
“Oh – we have sold out again!” said the only store assistant I could find, after I had searched shelves at Morrison’s high and low.
I drove into Glen Nevis, now reassuring myself with the thought that it had been a very harsh winter. That would have fixed the brutes for this year surely…
I found a campsite with a shop that was still open at 8pm.
“It was a very hard winter” I said to the young man behind the counter, “so there shouldn’t be many around – right? And besides it is September…” (I mean did I even need
Looking grave he sighed and shook his head “We all thought that – about the winter. But I think all that came from that was that the season has peaked later - so we are getting now what would normally happen in June – only worse!” He gave a short bark of humourless laughter “I’d get some stuff if I were you – it’s all over there” he said gesturing towards a stand of multiple shelves groaning under the weight of a poly-pharmacy of assorted bottles.
I went over to look. The choice was bewildering. And in 40 years of coming to the Scottish Highlands I had always come armed with bottles of high octane DEET, which I couldn’t see here now. Not that the filthy stuff ever seemed to work – like plastering yourself with some vicious industrial solvent – yet the only things it didn’t seem to harm were those it was designed to repel.
One of the bottles proclaimed itself to be ‘Scotch Mist’. It appeared to be a half bottle of Whisky. Reading the label I arrived at the conclusion that you could use it to club to death as many of your assailants as possible – before drinking yourself into the sort of state where you no longer care.
Ha – bloody – ha.
There were numerous other bottles containing an assortment of chemical weaponry – and all promising murderous capability. Amongst it all there were a number of pump action bottles of Avon Skin So Soft, which I thought may have inadvertently strayed from the beauty products counter.
I found the young man again. “As a local, what do you recommend?” I asked him.
“Oh – the Skin So Soft, definitely!” he said confidently “Yes – people swear by it and even the Army uses it…” This puzzled me, the thought of all those tough soldiers with soft fragrant smelling skin, happily defended against marauding insects – but presumably being detected by the bad guys, on account of the poofy waves of scent… unless the bad guys all wore it too?
A middle aged lady standing close by joined the discussion. Her accent suggested that she was a local.
“Och aye!” she said “Ye need ter spray it on thick – an’ then dro-oon the canny wee beasties!” Her eyes widened madly as she considered this happy albeit murderous prospect.
I had duly purchased my bottle of Skin So Soft.
A Warning On The Ben
Half an hour later I was labouring up the lower slopes of Ben Nevis, bowed under a heavy rucksack – laden with five days worth of food, fuel and camping equipment. It was soon dark and I walked by headtorch light. I met a couple of young lads coming down and we chatted briefly. When they established that I intended to camp by the little lake a third of the way up they both shook their heads, “Och” said one “Ye’ll need to watch out fer they midgies!”
But an hour later, even though I not only camped by the little lake, but also in a swamp, I didn’t encounter a single one. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. It was after all September. Midge season, so far as I remembered, was June/July mainly – dying off in August.
Camp by the Lake - and not a midge in sight.
By 10 o’clock next morning I was up on top of Ben Nevis, at 4,406 feet above sea level the very highest point in Scotland – and indeed all of the British Isles. It is said that 70% of the time the top of ‘The Ben’ is lost behind a rather different form of Scotch mist than that advertised on the bottle I had found down at the campsite shop. But I had caught him in a more revealing mood – and summit views were unimpeded to a far distant horizon in every direction.
Top of Ben Nevis
I settled myself amongst the boulders at the edge of the summit plateau and basked under an increasingly warm sun, as it rose higher into the sky. Down to my left, I could see the narrow crest of the Carn Dearg Arete stretching dramatically up towards the ochre spire of Carn Dearg, whose apex was not very much lower than my own lofty view point. Down to the right, bouldery slopes plunged over 4000 feet down to the tranquil green depths of upper Glen Nevis. Way down there I could see the river wending its way through lush grassy meadows towards a more dramatic section of gorge – with forest and crag either side. Dropping into the meadows to meet up with the river, I could see the Steall Falls – an impressive cataract about 200 feet high, descending from the watershed of the Mamore range.
Carn Dearg Arete Traquil green depths of Glen Nevis. Mamores behind.
I had planned to climb up and over the Mamore range after descending from Ben Nevis – and even cross another lower range the other side, before camping again – in Glencoe. But the scene below looked so inviting that I decided to camp by the river in Glen Nevis instead. I felt no sense of foreboding as I gazed on the tranquil scene from my eerie up on the highest place in the land.
Absorbed in the view, it took a moment to register an itching breaking out in several different places – although with particular urgency, an eyelid and my upper lip. I rubbed the offending places quickly, noting that multiplicities of other parts were rapidly commanding the same type of attention. I found myself rubbing hard at my neck, scalp and then the bits of myself doing the rubbing started to itch… and I realised I need to rub my eyelid and top lip again, both of which had started to swell. And then I saw them…
I had been attacked by midges up at 4,406 feet. In 40 years of coming to the Scottish Highlands, this is by far the highest place I have ever been subject to an attack. I felt a mixture of resentment - and pride at achieving a personal best.
In the warm still air, I could now recognise the tiny harmless looking little specs floating around my head, almost like motes of dust dancing in a sun beam. And I could see them as they landed on my wrists and hands – minute greyish dots, crawling on my skin – and biting me.
I stood up abruptly and walked away from where a little swarm was beginning to collect – attracted to me. It wasn’t difficult to get away from them with a few quick paces. But as soon as I stopped, within a few seconds they were all around me again.
After a few moments of irritation, playing hide & seek amongst the boulders, a light breeze began to blow across the summit plateau. Miraculously the midges all vanished. Within a minute the only sign they had been there were my slightly puffed up and itching eyelid, a thick lip – and a handful of other tiny swellings, adorning fingers and around my ear lobes. All a bit itchy – but taken individually a midge bite is not bad – and even as many as a dozen quite easily tolerable. Where it all becomes a bit of a problem is when the dozen becomes a few hundred – or more.
I settled back down amongst the boulders again and midges soon (nearly) forgotten, set about an early lunch. The sun was now high in the sky and quite powerful for September – but agreeably fanned by the breeze, all was really rather comfortable and I dozed off.
I didn’t leave the top of the Ben until well after midday. By then the summit plateau was beginning to heave with other visitors, who would have set out somewhat later than I had done – and from a lower starting point. Heading down towards upper Glen Nevis I descended a craggy slope of boulders, with only the barest hint of a path – which soon wound round towards the Carn Dearg Arete. I diverged from this and half an hour or so later I was picking my way carefully down a steep grassy spur, threading my route round boulders and small slabs of exposed rock.
Descent from Ben Nevis, down the grassy spur.
After some 3000 feet of descent and with just 1000 feet to go, I reached a col – from where the spur rose up to a low summit, which would overlook the Steall Falls, down in the Glen and not so very far away now. There was no path anywhere. Options were to go the left into a gentle side valley with a pretty looking stream – or to the right, down a steep craggy slope, dropping precipitously into the gorge.
With 20kg on my back, I chose the soft option – the less direct side valley, wending its way round the mountainside, following a circuitous route round and down into upper Glen Nevis. I soon reached the pretty looking stream and paused to drink and replenish my water bottles. My midge bites had nearly stopped itching – and pretty much all there was of my earlier encounter was a slight tightness in one eyelid and a part of my top lip. There was enough of a breeze that nothing stirred apart from the air, down by the little brook. So I settled down and had another bask in the sun before heaving my backpack on again and tackling the last mile and 500 feet down into the main valley.
Down by the little brook.
Tranquility in Glen Nevis
Upper Glen Nevis was as tranquil and inviting at valley bottom level as had been the promise from two hours before, gazing down from over 4000 feet above. This was supposed to be a toughening up exercise for Aconcagua, six months in the future – but I decided that in such a beautiful place, I could allow myself an easy day today. I would do a longer march the next day, when I would traverse the Mamore range and eventually wind up in Glencoe.
So – with not a midge in sight – the temptation was too great and in moments I had my little yellow home up and my brand new MSR stove roaring like a 747 jet engine.
I operated the stove with it carefully placed on a flat stone, a prudent distance away from the tent. It had been years since I had used a liquid fuel stove and I had in the intervening time succumbed to the simplicity and safety of propane mix gas. But on Aconcagua I will have to use liquid fuel, so amongst other things this little Scottish trip was to re- familiarise myself with an MSR and hopefully learn to operate it with a degree of safety.
Thus far, I had succeeded in lighting my new stove with only a modest fireball – but nonetheless had to accept that my skill level fell short of being able to safely operate the thing inside the tent, without considerable risk of incineration. But aside from that initial fireball and a slight reduction in the amount of hair on the backs of my hands (& eyebrows even) – the stove did what it said on the packet and a litre of water was boiling vigorously in a matter of seconds.
I had some soup, sampled a Mountain House freeze dried meal, followed up with a mug of hot chocolate - and then enjoyed the beautiful valley in the late afternoon sun. I did not heed the warning of the experience on the top of Ben Nevis - and forgot all about midges.
In Glen Nevis: I did not heed the warning of experience and forgot all about the midges.
I read a book for a while and then as the evening got underway, went for a stroll down the valley towards a mountain hut a mile or so distant. At this point there was wire Nepalese-style bridge spanning the river and I wanted to check it was usable before lugging my backpack down the valley next morning. It was – and I crossed to the hut, before walking up to the now formidable looking Steall falls, roaring overhead and sending a fine mist of spray drifting gently up the valley.
I re-crossed the wire bridge and returned to my tent. The breeze had dropped, but I didn’t really think about it as I settled back on my sleeping mat, out in the open and intending to read again.
The itching started immediately.
I looked up. Like a cloud of mobile motes of dust there was a swarm of midges about my head. It wasn’t like the few dozen up on top of the Ben. This time there were hundreds of them. I raked around in my back pack and found the bottle of Skin So Soft. Pacing up and down outside the tent I remembered the lady in the campsite shop and applied a slick layer to my skin, hoping it would dro-oon the wee beasties as she said. I slapped it on liberally all over my scalp, ears, hands – anywhere where there was exposed skin. The number of new bites lessened, but didn’t stop – and I was acutely aware that it didn’t stop the little bastards crawling into my eyes, up my nose, into my ears – every bloody where…
I fled for the tent. I flung my backpack inside along with as many loose items as possible – and then dived in myself, before achieving a speed record in zipping the door shut. Notably I left the stove outside – and also the bottle of Skin So Soft, contained within a polythene bag.
By then the swarm had multiplied. I succeeded in shutting millions out. But unfortunately my best efforts had shut a few hundred in. In the dim light of the interior they were hard to see as they swirled around my head. New bites kept on coming, despite my liberal dousing in Skin So Soft. I could see the little brutes when they landed on the sides of the tent though – as myriad little black dots. Progressively the myriad dots became myriad little smears, increasingly fouling the pristine walls of my brand new Integral Designs tent.
After twenty minutes of vigorous smearing and furious clapping, numbers began to thin and I felt the battle of inside the tent was finally won. But ears, eyelids, nose, lips and fingers were all now itching with a vengeance. If the inside battle had been won though, outside was quite another matter. Where there had been millions before, there were now billions, in great billowing clouds backlit by the sunset. I could see them through the mosquito netting, even though the mesh was practically a black wall of minute insects settling on it – and fighting to get through the holes to reach me. It was even possible to hear millions of the brutes impacting against the walls of the tent, like a very fine rain.
I took an antihistamine tablet and in about half an hour the maddening itching from tens of bites settled to something tolerable. I was secure and relatively safe inside the tent. And the tent being brand new did not yet have any rips in any of its mosquito netting. But I still zipped up the inner door over the mosquito netting just to make sure. I decided to trust the mesh in the two ventilation ports up near the apex of the little dome, so left those open, to let in some fresh air.
Safe though I was, the dilemma was what on earth I was going to do in the morning. I couldn’t stay sat for ever in the tent. At the very least I would have to go out for a pee. And that did not bear thinking about, considering my puffed up inflamed eyelids and my lips rather like some cosmetic surgical procedure gone wrong. I considered for a moment: the way things were outside just now, if I tried to have a pee, I would instantly pick up hundreds of bites in a very delicate area. Heaven knows what effect that would have – and what would my wife think if I returned home in such a state? She would think I had got lucky and caught a particularly virulent dose of the pox – and might even add violent injury to my woes.
Fortunately I didn’t need a pee at that moment. I decided to put off further worry until the morning. Besides which, who knew what the morning would bring? Maybe the little bastards would just go away…
I passed a restless and itchy night, despite the antihistamine.
At dawn, it is deathly still, with not a breath of wind. If anything there are even more of them. With the stillness it is now easy to hear them pattering relentlessly against all surfaces of the tent. The mesh of the little ventilation ports is spotted with scores of them – little black dots against the pale grey of the sky, which is now overcast. The dawn, an overcast sky and windless conditions – I recognise these are all three major prerequisites for a major midge attack.
The mesh of the ventilation port is spotted with midges.
Somehow I need to have a coffee and some breakfast, get everything including the tent packed up – and then get on my way. And my sense of foreboding from last night was back… I now need a pee. Fortunately – that’s all – the freeze dried diet has seen to that.
The light drumming on the tent intensifies. A few seconds out there will be intolerable – a few minutes unthinkable. A quick open and shut of six inches of tent door would let in hundreds again, maybe thousands. I remember the bottle of Skin So Soft is outside.
I really am McDoomed.
For want of anything better to do I pack my sleeping bag and mat up – stuffing both into the bottom of my back pack. I rake around and pack all other loose items and I start to get myself dressed. Thank heavens for the ‘buff’ I purchased recently, which I can manipulate to cover nearly all of my head. Soon there is just me and a three quarter packed rucksack inside the tent – all ready to go bar packing the tent and cooking equipment.
Thank heavens for the buff I purchased recently.
From my safe little haven close to the Steall falls in Glen Nevis, I steel myself to explode into frantic activity. I visualise what I will do… speed record unzipping the tent, me plus rucksack out immediately… they’ll be attacking me now – how do I keep the little shits out of my eyes? And it is going to take a good five minutes to disassemble the stove, collapse the tent – and pack both, before I can run for it. Sitting comfortably and relatively unbitten it is very easy to procrastinate – putting off the moment I make myself do this.
Abruptly I am aware of a new sound coming into the tent. Above the constant thrumming of millions of minute little bodies striking the walls of my home I can hear a few harder impacts, sporadically – as if they have drummed up a few much larger cousins to assault my little yellow home. The impacts become more frequent – and settle into the steady pitter-patter… of RAIN!
I am McSaved!
All my past experience tells me that midges don’t like rain. Or they shouldn’t do. I mean how can they? It must be like flying around whilst trying to dodge thousands of truck sized lumps of water hurtling at you, if you are a midge. They must be being knocked out of the sky by the thousand at this very moment. I listen to the steady pattering and think sadistically of what must be thousands of tiny impacts…
I decide to give it a few minutes just to make sure. And now I can relax. A wet tent and a walk in the rain is the worst I have to fear now. I decide I will risk incineration and bring the stove into the tent – and have a coffee before I don waterproofs and pack up the now soaking tent.
Confidently I unzip the tent door. I still can’t see very much in the dim light of dawn plus very heavy overcast now. I start to reach out for the items I need…
The overwhelming impression is of having a cup of sand thrown in both eyes. It is extraordinary. Millions of midges zoom into the tent, each and every one homing in on my face, my eyes. I screw my eyes shut, but too late – I can feel several, just like grains of sand – only they wriggle.
And then the itching starts. Maddening, intolerable and in hundreds of places at once – all over my scalp, my lips (again), my wrists, hands – and fingers…
Somehow, with my eyes screwed shut I manage to hurl the stove, its flat rock and associated paraphernalia into the tent. I do not forget the bottle of Skin So Soft, located in a plastic bag to stop the oily substance leaking into my rucksack. Within five seconds everything – dripping wet – is inside and the tent door zipped shut again.
Then I am free to claw at myself. Frantically rubbing at my eyes - pulling the lids down in attempts to eject a few tiny mangled corpses, from under my eyelids. And then the murderous itching – everywhere… raking at myself with my fingers, but then clawing at my fingers, as they too have picked up bites…
And of course I am still being attacked and picking up new bites as the tent is now full of micro-vampires, all those that zoomed in – no doubt happy to get out of the rain as well as intent on attacking me.
I remember the bottle of Skin So Soft, in its plastic bag. Despite my tormented state I can see that apparently thousands of midges have got inside – and died in there, dro-ooned in the oily spillage smearing the inside of the bag. God – it is as if they have staged some kind of suicide attack on my only means of defence.
Frenziedly I whip the bottle out, flip off the cap – and start convulsively depressing the pump mechanism.
It won’t work.
I have to claw at myself again – and do a bit of hasty smearing and clapping at hundreds of new black dots crawling over the tent walls and the grey dots swarming round my head. Funny – they look black with their wings stationary but grey when tiny wings are blurred into invisible motion.
The bottle of Skin So Soft, with dead midges - dro-ooned in oily residue inside the bag.
Still can’t get the blasted pump to work. With all the scores of tiny midge corpses inside the plastic bag I imagine feverishly that the little brutes have been successful in their suicide attacks on my means of defence and have somehow disabled the pump mechanism. But actually it is really just that in leaving the bottle outside, the contents congealed in the relative cold – and that is why the pump won’t work.
I unscrew the top and pour a hefty dose of now lumpy liquid into the palm of one hand – and I splash it liberally all over my scalp, face, neck – reducing my ‘buff’ to an oily rag in the process, but who cares. I smear the stuff all over my hands. The sickly sweet odour of Skin So Soft is in my nostrils – along with a few million tiny insects, all apparently using my nose hairs as rope ladders. I try to snuff them out and splat semi-clotted liquid all round this inconvenient breech in my body’s defences.
Another twenty minutes later the battle of the inside of the tent is won again. It reminds me a bit of the film ‘Zulu’ – when a small platoon of soldiers eventually fights off an impossible number of Zulu warriors in what became known as the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Like after Rorke’s Drift, my little battlefield is littered with corpses – and I am even spitting them out.
Once again with thick lips and puffy eyelids again, I consider my predicament. On the positive side I am safe inside my little oasis. I peer outside through the mosquito netting of the tent door. It is light enough to see now – although it is still quite dull under the weeping clouds. But out there I have never seen such a midge swarm: millions and millions of dancing grey dots, somehow visible against the darker grey background of the sky. And there are all the black dots of insects crawling all over the netting, trying to get in. With momentary alarm I note where a bit of the netting is scuffed – slightly damaged no doubt, by my frantic efforts of a few moments earlier. But it is not actually breeched thank goodness – and they can’t get in.
The itching from all my bites has eased to merely maddening. I try not to scratch, but occasionally have to give in to the urge to rub furiously at myself. I take another antihistamine tablet. Despite a growing pressure in my bladder, reminding me that some time I will have to brave the outside, I decide I will take advantage of the fact that I now have the stove. Being under siege makes me feel bold – and fire-balls and all, I am going to light the MSR and have a cup of coffee.
My slightly frazzled eyebrows are testament to the fact that I should have got the hang of the stove now. I let just enough primer out into the well under the jet and no more. Then a quick strike of a match and with a soft wumph; I produce a modest ball of flame a mere six inches across. I allow it to blaze, casting only occasional worried glances up at the midge splattered tent roof – and soon I am rewarded by the flame shrinking in size to the accompaniment of an spluttering purr-rr – which immediately becomes a 747 jet roar when I open the valve. A quick application of a billy-can and in seconds I have a pint of boiling water. I wonder if the steam billowing out through the mosquito netting will drive my foe away. It doesn’t. I regret giving up smoking all those years ago.
I try to enjoy my coffee and not to think about what is to come. The coffee adds a slight degree of urgency to the growing pressure in my bladder. This trip is ‘only Scotland in summer’ so I didn’t bring a pee bottle. So I have to do this now. Bleakly I stare out through the mosquito netting at the waiting swarms, wondering that if I hate them enough it will make them go away. But this is no more effective than the rain and the steam. When the stove has cooled I pack it away and put the finishing touches to stowing everything into my back pack. My oil stained buff is on and I am encased in gortex from head to ankles – and boots & gaiters are on. I see my gloved hand on the zip toggle…
I burst into sudden movement. Zip open – rucksack out followed by me. The voo-oom as a trillion midges pounce is almost audible. The layer of Skin So Soft helps, but the little bastards are still penetrating my defences and especially getting at my eyes again. I reach into the tent to flip out the flexible poles….
Bugger it! I forgot the Velcro fasteners – fixing them to the roof of the tent. But I can hardly see and am now itching again at every chink in my armour. With eyes screwed shut I burrow back into the tent, reaching for the fastenings by feel. I release perhaps half of them – but the itching and feeling of millions of things crawling into every orifice, thankfully only those in my face, becomes intolerable and I have to back out. I trot away – and jog in a wide circle, whilst clawing at my inflamed face.
With rain, tears and midge corpses streaming down my cheeks I steel myself and dive back into the tent, thus rendering it wet on the inside as well as out. Somehow I flip the rest of the Velcro and flex the poles, which then recoil and fly out of the tent like a pair of harpoons. I follow – and then swiftly yank out the four pegs anchoring the tent corners.
Folding even a small tent is not easy to accomplish whilst at a moderate trot, but I manage it, in between demented rubs at my smarting eyes. I am forced to stop and put it on the ground to roll it and wrestle it into its stuff sack. Amazingly it goes in – and is soon stowed at the top of my pack.
Munro fever up in the Mamores.
Reeling slightly with 20kg on my back, I jog away from the scene of the battle. By clumsily gripping on my eyelashes I can pull my top lids down over the bottom lids, thus ejecting the remaining midge corpses from my eyes. My vision is a little blurred and I have to be careful I don’t trip over a wet heather root or stone. But soon I am on the main path – and can reduce my speed to a fast walk, without fear of attack.
The pressure in my bladder is definitely urgent now, but I daren’t stop. The thought of what just hit my face, shrouded as it was in oily buff - hitting me down there, just doesn’t bare thinking about. I stride the kilometre or so down valley to the Nepalese bridge. On the other side, I run away from the trees into the middle of a meadow as far from any dense vegetation as I can. Then I do the deed as quickly as I can. The brutes soon find me of course – and I resort to imitating a Catherine wheel – revolving and spraying in the hope this will throw them off target. If there is anyone in the Glen to observe my antics, I realise I could be taken for a rather eccentric kind of a flasher. But I also realise that anyone else in the Glen at that moment would be subject to the same kind of attack and hopefully would be able to work it out. If not I am past caring.
Relieved, I put myself away – triumphant that they didn’t get me. A quick stride across the sodden meadow soon leaves the little swarm starting to gather, behind me. I pass the Steall Falls, roaring away up to my right and a few moments later encounter an alluvial fan coming down from the same side – and about half way back up the valley towards my camp site and scene of recent carnage. A narrow path zigzags its way up the fan, which breeches some crags, allowing access to the upper slopes of the first of the Mamore summits, An Gearanoch some 3,220 feet high.
I set about 3000 feet of toil, plodding up the path, towards this first objective. One thing about the Highlands around Ben Nevis is that you are starting from near sea level, so that over 3000 feet means over 3000 feet. I get into a rhythm, but even so after an hour am ready for a breather. To my dismay, even high above the valley, midges are still massed and ready to mobilise at minimal notice. I cannot stop for more than half a minute before being detected and attacked. Oh well – I did want some fitness training…
To my dismay even high above the valley midges are ready to mobilse.
I shove sweaty iPod ear pieces up under the oily buff. I hope that the combination of sweat, Skin So Soft and rain doesn’t harm them – but I need an uplifting tune and catchy rhythm to get me up this interminable slope. I select carefully… playlist that starts with Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening theme of 2001 a Space Odyssey – but this version by the City of Prague Philharmonic… in under two minutes it reaches its climax of thundering drums and fanfare trumpets, but that is enough – and I am on my way. Strauss’s Blue Danube, also from ‘2001’ and also by the Prague Philharmonic, is next. It is in ‘3 time’ but the ‘1’ of the waltz ‘1,2,3 - 1,2,3…’ exactly matches the pace I come up with for 3000 feet-plus-20kg-of-rucksack.
As I have been labouring up the slope I have been aware of a figure in a red jacket following me, a few hundred feet below when I stopped for my very brief breather - before I was driven on by the midges. By the time I have been plodding – iPod driven – for another half an hour, it is obvious he is catching up with me. And yet, with the uplifting music I had felt as if I was bounding upwards…
I get my head down, grip my poles and plod grimly on, determined to at least get to the summit before allowing him to catch up. Having been on the go over an hour and a half my lungs are labouring now and I fancy a slight froth is forming on my still slightly puffy lips. A quick glance back and he is still slowly but surely closing the gap…
I console myself with the thought that he must be twenty years younger than me and just carrying a day sack.
After over two hours on the go I fancy I must be near the top – and therefore I must have ascended close to 3000 feet now. Red jacket is perhaps 100 meters behind me and less than 100 feet below. My lungs are near to bursting and I am faltering now despite the iPod. I see a crest with nothing but grey sky behind it, just up ahead and put in a final burst of energy…
It is a false summit. The ridge flattens briefly and then rears a further 300 feet – almost tauntingly. Bugger that! I stop and throw off my sack. My mouth is dry. The rain has now stopped but I am dripping wet with sweat. I need a drink – but will have to be sparing since in the kerfuffle to leave this morning I only managed to fill one water bottle. Mercifully there is a breeze now – so no midges.
I partially slake my thirst and wait curiously to see who it has been – effortlessly - chewing up the distance in between us. Again I console myself with the thought that he will be both very young and lightly laden.
Five minutes later Red Jacket pops up onto my grassy little eerie. He is only about five years younger than me so about 45 – and he is humping a monster sack, the same size as mine. He is panting like a steam engine though and lathered in sweat – so at least he has the grace to look as if his efforts have cost him. He looks up at the true summit and at me sat by the path.
“Oooh!” he says “Bah gum, that were a pull! Ah think ah’ll join yer…”
He is not a local. I recognise the tones of someone from the North of England. And indeed he is from Manchester. We get chatting and I feel less miffed that he caught me up so easily with my ‘training for Aconcagua’ form. He is one of a breed of hill goers I haven’t seen in a few years, it has been so long since I have got properly into the wilds of the Highlands.
He is a Munroist.
Munroists are bunch of dedicated, often fanatical, breed of mountain men and women who are intent on scaling all 283 odd of Scottish peaks, over 3000 feet high – and defined by Sir Hugh Munro near to the turn of the last century. In my experience they tend to be lean, disgustingly fit – and measure the success of a day out in the hills by the number of dozen summits they can tick off their lists - the famous Munro tables – which are in a constant state of revision, due to the complex rules and definitions associated with the game. For example, under the rules it is defined that there are tops and summits of over 3000 feet, but only the ‘summits’ count – but with the rules summits get demoted and tops get promoted according to the days interpretations of the late Sir Hugh’s intentions. This keeps Munroists on their toes – and obscenely fit – and probably they can never be 100% certain of finishing as there will always be a new generation of zealots to come along and promote some obscure pinnacle miles from anywhere…
My dedicated companion has been at it for a year and as far as I can make out is about half way through his tables. He works, so he must have been at it every weekend and for all of his holidays. Today he is just going to have a light day – just ‘four’ and a few tops. He is on about something the sounds like the ring-piece of steel, or maybe Ring of Steall in deference to those four summits in a horseshoe above the Steall Falls – rather than to a piece of intimate anatomy suited to the morning after a very hot curry.
And for tomorrow I ask?
Like me he is laden with camping equipment. He didn’t camp last night but had noticed the midges were bad when he emerged from the Youth Hostel this morning. So he is going to camp somewhere tonight, but somewhere high up and suitable as a launch point for some monumental excursion tomorrow. Then he gestures vaguely off in the direction of a sea of formidable looking summits starting from Ben Nevis and spanning at least two quadrants of the compass, to the far distant horizon.
“Ah’l mebbe tek a look at the Ben, Carn Dearg, Aonach Mor an’ that lot - and then t’ Grey Corries” he says. So a ‘medium’ Munro day then, I think to myself.
But something is worrying him. A frenetic bagger of high Scottish summits, it appears he has a weakness. “Ah’m scared o’ heights!” he admits. He is afraid that there are some airy bits of ridge in some of this ‘Ring of Steall’. I am not sure, not having explored the Mamore’s before. Nonetheless he squares his jaw resolutely, swings on his pack – and is off, a man on a mission, striding purposefully towards An Gearanoch. In a minute or two he is over the top and out of sight.
A few much longer minutes later, I am up there myself. I pause to take in the view, which is improving with a slow improvement in the weather. My late companion is now a far distant dot on top of the next prominence, which I note is ‘only a top’ – the next true Munro being further along the ridge – the bit which he had feared may challenge his fear of height. To the right of the Munro (Stob Coire a Chairn), I note that the steel ring-piece goes on to include another three summits: Am Bodach, Sgurr an Lubhair and the highest Sgurr a Mhaim, just a shade higher than Snowdon at 3,604 feet. The bit of ridge between the last two – I’m not going to type out those names again – looks attractive in a way that may challenge my late companion’s height issues. I speculate on this for a moment or two – and also on reasons why the Scottish have to have such impossible names for everything.
But I am not following Red Jacket – I never asked his name. My route will diverge from his after that first Munro after here. I am planning on going straight on down a long valley to Kinlochleven, out the other side, up over a low range and then down into Glencoe. I am beginning to have second thoughts about this plan though. If the midges were bad in Glen Nevis, it will be the same in Glencoe.
It takes perhaps a little over half an hour to traverse the bit of ridge leading to the top – no, summit – Stob Coire a Chairn. In between is a ‘top’ called An Garbhanach – and indeed there is a little bit of exposed ridge there, which is enjoyable. I may not be able to keep up with Red Jacket, but at least I have more of a head for heights.
Summit of An Gearanoch looking towards the 'top' of An Garbhanach.
Up on the summit there is just enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay and the sun comes out. I recognise this is a perfect opportunity to dry my tent – and I unpack it, noting with dismay that the saturated yellow gortex is liberally fouled with midge corpses. Hopefully most will dry and drop off as the tent dries. The tent is an Integral Designs Mk2 Lite – and as it says on the packet, can be erected in seconds. I peg one corner in case the wind picks up and go sit by the summit cairn to have some lunch.
Stob Coire a Chairn: my rucksack has learned to stand unaided. Next step is to get it to climb slopes… Ben Nevis from Stob Coire a Chairn
As I sit in the sun, a few other hill goers pass – some solitary travellers, but also one group of three. This far out into the wilds, they are all Munroists. I can tell, not only by the obvious fitness, but also by the fact that they can recite the names of all the surrounding summits (and ‘tops’ – just in case) – and further to that seem to be able to pronounce them effortlessly, whatever their natural dialect; even one lone young man all the way from Poland.
The group of three cause me to modify my plans to go on to Glencoe. They tell me that further round the steel ring, between the last two Munro’s, there is a little lake, high enough up to catch a bit of breeze and be a low risk from a midge perspective. Slightly apologetically – as they’d only done half a dozen and a few tops – one of them explains that they had camped there last night with no problems.
The hell with Glencoe: I will in Munroist parlance ‘have a wee look at’ the next two – get it right – summits and go and camp by this little lake. Then for the remainder of the time I have, I’ll ‘have a wee look at’ the rest of the Mamore chain heading west – before dropping down and doing a few miles of the West Highland Way, the well known long distance walk. That will bring me back round and down into Glen Nevis, right by the camp ground where I left the car – and purchased my bottle of Skin So Soft.
Thinking of this plan, a little bit of my companion’s Munro fever grips me as I work out this will enable me ‘to have a wee look at’ around seven more Munro’s and a few tops. I have two more days to do this in – so I don’t admit in the current company that I will have an easy day tomorrow, having a wee look at a mere ‘one’ – the final nail in the steel ring-piece horse-shoe – Sgurr a Mhaim.
For now though I have two more to heave my heavy back pack over. Both are quite big – and involve significant descent and then ascent each time – probably over two hours of hard walking. The sun is now hot - and I have no more water. Having planned on dropping down now to a valley with streams, I had allowed myself to finish the meagre amount left in the one water bottle I had filled during those frantic moments this morning. I am thirsty before I even start.
The next two Munro’s in the Ring of Steall. A ‘top’ in the foreground, then the 700 foot pull up over Am Bodach.
I drop down a few hundred feet, climb briefly to surmount a ‘top’, then a larger descent before there is a steep 700 foot pull to reach the summit of An Bodach. Very thirsty now I pause to look hopefully for water – somewhere. Many hundreds of feet below and on either side of the ridge, numerous streams sparkle seductively. But I am not about to embark on an excursion which would take over half an hour – when in three quarters, I can hopefully be at this lake. Up on my col there is a muddy pond in the middle of a little swamp, but it is stagnant and I cannot risk that.
I look up to see a couple walking along the broad ridge towards me. They pause to exchange a few words. He is a tough 35, mahogany skinned and with sleeves rolled back over a pair of forearms as muscular as a pair of thighs. I notice a discrete little tattoo. His clothing is like him, neat but weathered – not a hint of ‘designer’ – and with his short hair and clean shaven cheeks I decide he may be ex-military. He is soft spoken and mentions quietly that they have already had a wee look at all the Mamore’s that I plan to traverse – but that now they are heading off to complete the chain in the other direction - today. A bit like Red Jacket this morning he makes a careless sweep of the far distant horizon with a calloused hand: I am given to understand that they plan to camp somewhere way over there, on the other side of another half dozen. But first, whilst they are here, he wants to nip over and have a wee look at the first two of the three I have just crossed, which are not in their direction of travel and which would otherwise be missed…
Oh, another Munroist then. He is not just out for a nice days hill walking.
His companion, a slim woman of about thirty, looks a little guarded at mention of all this. She looks tired already and says she is thirsty. She just has small load on her back and I notice that he is gallantly carrying by far the Lion’s share of the kit. At the mention that she is thirsty, he shrugs off his rucksack and extracts a worn but peculiar looking plastic cylinder. He walks over to the foetid looking puddle I had observed earlier and sucks up half a pint of muddy looking water into some part of the cylinder interior.
“It’s a filter” he explains, seeing my interrogative look. He goes on “I never carry water in the hills – just this. Brilliant piece of kit – filters anything. So I just collect water and drink as I go along… a half a pint every couple of summits is all you need really!”
His girl friend doesn’t seem as sold on it as he is – and when he passes the full device to her, not having his thigh like forearms, she struggles to squeeze water out of it. Apparently you have to squeeze what you have collected through the filter system in order to drink. He goes on to explain how he just carries the minimum of kit and food. Evidently you can go all day on a handful of trail mix as well as just the odd half pint of bog water. And indeed, although he is carrying the majority of their kit, I have to concede his neat looking pack is smaller than mine. He is now explaining how you don’t need a stove either…
I imagine he might have got used to managing on not very much as a member of Special Forces, chasing Sadam Hussain across Northern Iraq.
Moving on I eye the bouldery 700 foot climb in front of me. I am now very thirsty but have to resign myself to doing without water until I get to the little lake, on the other side of this next summit and the one after it. But as I move along the ridge again I think like my Special Forces friend and start searching the tops of any flat rocks I encounter. It rained this morning and so any water collected in any hollows would be fresh.
As luck would have it, I find a half pint puddle of crystal clear water in a hollow on a disc shaped boulder about a meter across. There doesn’t seem to be any bird poop in it so I get down on hands and knees and drain it gratefully. I could do with more, but if a half pint per couple of summits is good enough for my recent acquaintance, then it is also going to have to do for me.
It is quite a grunt getting up over Am Bodach. I pass another couple of solitary Munroists going the other way, one of whom is a woman of around 65 years of age – travelling rather slowly but with face set in a frown of determination. I pause to inspect the view when I reach my fourth summit cairn of the day. I can see Special Forces and his girlfriend in the middle distance as tiny dots, on the ridge midway between those first two summits of the steel ring. Even at a distance I can see that the first dot is forging energetically forward, impatient to tick off the little pinnacle, before reversing and getting on with the distant horizon – clearly him. And the second dot, with a degree of reluctance, trailing behind slightly – clearly her.
On the other side of Am Bodach, the ridge drops off a few hundred feet and then rises again to the summit of Sgurr an Lubhair. This will be the last one for me today. I am not going to go on to tick off Sgurr a Mhaim, the final nail in the horseshoe, which would be in a direction away from the lake. I shall have a leisurely wee look at this, with allegedly attractive bit of ridge, tomorrow.
The pull up to the top of Sgurr an Lubhair is 400 feet at the most – and at a gentle gradient. I am thirsty again and look around expectantly, to see the lake I have come to find. I cannot see it. All I can see is a big puddle in the middle of a small bog on a shoulder about 300 feet below. I drop down and weary now as well as thirsty I am tempted to camp here and risk the water – after having boiled it. I am further tempted because the site is very high and commands a terrific view – and with a steady breeze coming through there shouldn’t so much as a midge. My assailants of this morning are not forgotten. All day I have been rubbing at a crop of itchy bumps, especially on my ears and around my eyelids.
The little lake. The site of Fanatic’s camp is on the low ridge just beyond. Summit of Sgurr an Lubhair: Stob Ban and remaining Mamores beyond, with the lake out of sight below.
But now I can see the Lake – another 300 feet below. It looks about 50 meters across and is crystal clear. The puddle beside me is about 2 meters across and the water is greenish and anything but clear. I start descending towards the lake.
Half way down I pass my last Munroist of the day, moving up towards me with great bounding strides. He is probably the same age as me, but unlike me is of greyhound build - and is travelling very light. Since it is now evening I wonder where on earth he is going, this time of day. Even the hardest of Munroists ought to be either setting up camp or high-tailing it for the valley by now. In a rough Glasgow accent he explains…
“Ah’m camping doon at the wee lochan” he explains “Ah’ve no set up mah tent the noo, but ah’ve had ma tea an’ ah’m off for a wee look at Sgurr a Mhaim!” He goes on to explain how he has left his rucksack down where he intends to camp, on a grassy promontory overlooking the lake.
It takes a quick changing of mental gears to understand him, but I lived in Scotland for five years in a previous life, so I manage to translate. So he has done his dozen, stopped for the day near to the lake, had his evening meal – and now instead of a mug of cocoa, he is going to finish with another quick summit before he cleans his teeth and goes to bed. He’s going get Sgurr a Mhaim ticked off straight away since this is not in his planned direction of travel tomorrow.
Shifting to darker tones he warns me not to set up my own camp on that wee promontory above the lake. He hasn’t put his tent up yet – but that is his site – by rite of passage. Having had enough of being attacked in my tent by marauding midges, I have no desire now to be attacked by an irate and territorial Scotsman, so I promise that there is no danger of me nicking his spot. Besides, his spot although granted it commands a fine view, is some fifty feet above the lake and I have no wish to go this far to fetch and carry water.
My fanatical and slightly intimidating acquaintance decides to accept my assurances. He gives a curt nod – and bounds off up the hillside like a stag with rutting fever, off after a hind. I move off at a more sedate pace and in a few moments reach the little lake.
Close up, the water is still crystal clear and it would be attractive to actually camp right on the shore. But it is relatively sheltered and that could well mean midges. I follow the little stream emerging from the lake and after about seventy meters find a spot that is both flat and exposed a bit more to a breeze. Camping down here I should also be well away from the Fanatic and whilst I won’t get the view he will have of the sunset, there is still an attractive view of distant Glen Nevis – and beyond that, Fort William.
Camp looking towards Am Bodach Camp with Fort William in far distance.
I set up camp – and revel in the luxury of being able to sit outside to have my evening meal. It isn’t perfect though. Every so often the breeze dies – and in minutes they are there, little grey dots floating around my head and the first hints of a new itch starting up somewhere. Although it isn’t easy to tell – the old itches are itching and there are so many, it is hard to be sure.
It is nearly dark and I have finished my cocoa and am thinking of cleaning my teeth and going to bed, when the Fanatic returns from his evening excursion. He makes a detour away from the lake side path, in order to swing by my camp.
“Ah could see tha’ tent o’ yourn reet from the top!” he says accusingly and by way of greeting.
Apparently my tent being very yellow is highly visible and he could see it from the top of Sgurr a Mhaim, nearly 2000 feet above. I respond with a neutral “really” and avoid saying anything that might provoke him. I could have told him that the only other option was pale blue, but that I couldn’t go for that since it was my ex-wife’s colour. The yellow matches the colour of the living room, chosen by my second wife – and it also goes with our dog, who is a Golden Retriever. But I don’t say all this as his sense of humour is an unknown quantity – and I think he is actually genuinely put out that my tent is so visible. He stalks off into the dusk, heading for his eerie above the lake
Sgurr a Mhaim
Next morning, as is my habit, I am up early to enjoy the dawn. There is a fine mist down in the main valley and only the very top of Sgurr a Mhaim picks up the golden light from the rising sun, which is hidden at the moment. I have a leisurely breakfast and around 7.30am spot the Fanatic up there, now more heavily laden, striding purposefully up by the lake side. He gives a short wave, although I don’t suppose he really approves of the fact that my tent is still up and still desecrating the landscape so late in the day. He bounds off up the hillside, in the direction of Sgurr a Mhaim for a while, but then angles off towards Sgurr an Lubhair – where I had come down yesterday – and he disappears from sight.
I pack a very light sack, just water bottles, and wearing a fleece to ward off the morning chill am ready for the off by 8am. I set off in the footsteps of the Fanatic, but angle at the top of the slope towards Sgurr a Mhaim. After twenty minutes or so I am up on the ridge, emerging into sunlight for the first time. The temperature immediately rises and I stow my fleece.
Up into the sun on Sgurr a Mhaim
The pinnacle section
The ridge is narrow and gets narrower still – and there is a delightful pinnacle section – which makes me think of my first acquaintance yesterday, Red Jacket, who was afraid of heights. I remember he intended to come along here and I am conscious he wouldn’t have liked it…
Photo stops and all, I am on the top by 9.30am. It is warm and sunny, but just enough of a breeze to keep the midges at bay. I fluff up some of the summit boulders a bit and settle down for some serious viewing. By and by I fall asleep – but am woken by the arrival of a party of several people. They seem like normal hill-goers – and I recognise that this particular summit is sufficiently close now to lower Glen Nevis to attract such. But then I notice there is one of them in the party – a Munroist. He is a craggy faced 50, with short scrubby steel grey beard. Although he is part of the group there is an air of seriousness about him, as well as an impatience to be off – at odds with the relaxed jollity of the rest of the party. I confirm that my diagnosis is correct when I overhear someone saying how someone – and I know it’s him – is due to be climbing his ‘last one’ this very Saturday. So he has presumably visited approaching 280 odd summit cairns like the one I am basking on – and he is going to visit his 283rd the day after tomorrow. He straightens as this is said and stares proprietarily and fiercely out over the far ranges. For his sake, I hope they don’t go and promote one of the tops again, just after his triumphal finish.I take a group photo for the Munroist and his lighter hearted party and then set off down.
Stob Ban and the remainder of the Mamore chain from Sgurr a Mhaim summit.
I have lost perhaps 500 feet of height and am half way along the ridge when I turn and see that craggy faces’s impatience to be off has got the better of him. He is now descending fast and way ahead of the rest of his party – further confirming my diagnosis. I wonder how he came to be with a party of the unenlightened today. Maybe on Saturday he’ll be with his own kind – or alone.
The Bank Manager
Evening light back down at the tent
Sunset from the tent. The Bank Manager saw this from the top of Stob Ban…
I decide to get up early next day to cross the three remaining Munro’s of the range, starting with the attractive looking Stob Ban - which has dominated the skyline above my little camp, although by no means the highest in the vicinity. As I shrug on my back pack I am surprised but gratified to note that the absence of two mountain house freeze dried meals, two cuppasoups, a couple of sachets of cocoa, a couple of energy bars and a handful of trail mix – has resulted in a significant reduction in both size and weight of my sack. Needless to say all the wrappers for same are safely stored inside and my little campsite shows no sign that I once lived there.
Stob Ban glowing golden in the early morning light
Gripping my walking poles I set off up and across towards Stob Ban, glowing golden in the early morning light. After about ten minutes I spy a lone figure a few hundred meters ahead, walking slowly towards me. This is the first person I have seen since midday the previous day, when I took my leave of the craggy faced Munroist and his entourage. As the figure approaches, I become increasingly curious. I can see it is a man now and he does seem to be walking very slowly. And even by my Special Forces acquaintance’s Spartan standards, he appears lightly clad and laden for someone to be so high up in a remote part of the highlands, at this time of day.
As the gap between us closes I see my new acquaintance is bespectacled, male and sixtyish. With his thick rimless glasses and scholarly appearance he could be a Bank Manager from twenty years ago, before such beings were replaced with call centres in India or pre-pubescent customer service assistants, specially trained to sooth you about all the things that annoy you about Banks these days.
When he is up close he stops to pass the time of day. He is wearing shorts and an extraordinarily light weight orange water-proof jacket and I think all that is underneath is a T-shirt. On his back is a tiny haversack, of the type used by children these days to carry their pencils and gameboys to school. It is not yet 8 o’clock in the morning; we are 2,500 feet up and miles from the nearest road – where on earth has he come from?
“I spent the night up on the top of Stob Ban” the Bank Manager explains in neutral BBC English. So not a local then. He goes on: “Didn’t you see me last night?” he wants to know “I’d have thought you’d have seen me silhouetted against the sunset…”
I did look up that way, but didn’t notice – probably too distant to see him against the sunset.
He raves about the sunset, most of which I missed down in the relative hollow by the lake. Of course the Fanatic had had the tent site with the sunset view. But as the Bank Manager raves on, I feel something is not quite right. I look at him closely…
His colour is mauve and he is covered in goose bumps despite the exercise of his descent from the top of the mountain. The tip of his nose is nearly blue. Once again I take in his unbelievable lack of clothing and kit.
“But you must have been very cold!” I say, stating the obvious.
Abruptly his demeanour changes: his face crumples a little, with painful memory – and he admits he was freezing, as he had neither sleeping bag nor tent. I point out that he looks to me as if he is still very cold. Actually he looks bordering on hypothermic – and I am surprised he isn’t slurring his speech or acting confused. Reluctantly he admits he still is rather cold. Concerned, I offer him food to help him warm up. I am actually prepared to offer him my last ‘Aconcagua grade’ energy bar, which I’d planned to save for breakfast on the top of Stob Ban. But he demurs, saying he has food. I look doubtfully at the tiny back pack, nonetheless he is emphatic – and insists he has enough for his needs.
But there is something else not right about him as well, involving his face. Superimposed onto the mauve/blue there is a faint motley redness, if that is possible – in a perfectly circular distribution, whose radius spans from eyebrow to just below his bottom lip. My powers of diagnosis are stretched. It is a long time since I studied Dermatology…
At that point he answers the question.
“…and there were midges up there!” - I should have known - then he goes on: “Yes just after sunset when the wind dropped they all came out…”
I would have been zipped up in my tent by then, so would have missed this – and then there was a breeze this morning to fan them all away. I am still baffled by the circular distribution of his rash though – until he demonstrates that in response to the attack he drew up the draw strings of his waterproof jacket hood as tight as he could – but this still left this large circular patch of face exposed. And of course his hands and his legs were open to attack as well. There is no swelling since he is so cold – but I would imagine that when he warms up, his eyelids and lips will puff up like balloons.
So he was up there all night, frozen and attacked by midges. I think that perhaps the midges cannot have been quite as bad as they were down in Glen Nevis 3 days ago. Had that been the case he’d have ended up either jumping off one of the precipices that make Stob Ban so attractive looking as a mountain – or I’d have found him up there an hour from now sucked dry by the marauding mini-vampires.
I can see that the Bank Manager is restless now. His enthusiasm for the conversation is waning and he clearly wants to start walking again, if only to try and get warm. He looks so awful, I feel a bit reluctant to leave him. Then he briefly mentions what he plans to do today…
He is after Munro’s. He is another Munroist, perhaps even more fanatical than the Fanatic.
That is why he nearly killed himself up there last night. He is going to go on now – to tick off Sgurr a Mhaim first, then re-join the main ridge to complete the ring-piece of steel. Overtly impatient to be off now, I don’t glean from him what he plans to do after that. Looking at him, I hope he will go down. On the plus side however, at least it is cooking up to be a warm day again – and where he plans to go now, he will be up in the sun light quite soon. So he’ll soon be warm, even without the assistance of my last energy bar.
I take my leave of the Bank Manager. I hope the clutch of new summits he will be able to tick off will be worth the rigours of the night he just endured.
The Last Three
The summit of Stob Ban, scene of the Bank Manager’s uncomfortable night is where I am now headed – with another two Munro’s, the last two Mamore’s in the chain, beyond it. There is half an hour of plod and then the last couple of hundred feet of Stob Ban is pleasant scrambling. Up on the top the early morning light is softened by mistiness in the air.
Pleasant scrambling to the top of Stob Ban
Misty view from top of Stob Ban. West highland way down in the valley bottom.
The remainder of the Mamore chain is an easy stroll over the grassy whale backs of Mullach nan Coirean and Meall a Chaorainn. In the soft light the views are pretty. It takes about two hours to reach the far end – and when I turn to look back Stob Ban is almost lost in the haze.
An easy stroll over the grassy whale backs of Mullach nan Coirean and Meall a Chaorainn.
When I turn to look back Stob Ban is almost lost in the haze.
On the other side of Meall a Chaorainn, I descend below 2000 feet for the first time in three days and descend a long grassy spur which leads down to a major valley, connecting Kinlochleven to lower Glen Nevis. Along the bottom of this valley runs the West Highland way, a popular back-packers route. As I approach this route I see the first people I have seen since I took my leave of the Bank Manager, early that morning. I am getting back into the world of ‘normal’ hillgoers as I leave my grassy spur and join the well trodden path. People are wandering along in pairs or small groups, relaxed and lightly laden. Not a Munroist’s in site... no solitary Fanatics, no ex-special forces troupers subsisting on half a pint of bog water per brace of summits – nor demented half crazed Bank Managers indulging in lunatic bivouacs – all towards the cause of slipping in an extra half dozen.
W highland way looking towards a distant Ben Nevis.
I pause for lunch by the dusty track. Then I haul my load onto my back for the last time and set off after a small group of elderly people who sounded American, when they said hello. I catch up and pass them and after a mile or so enter dense pine forest. The cool air between the trees is refreshing and is scented with pine.
Another couple of miles and I lose the last of my height and drop back down into lower Glen Nevis. I have gone full circle and am back now, where it all began – at the foot of the Ben, at the start of the footpath I ascended in darkness four days ago – on my way up to spend the first and midge-free night up by the lake.
Back into lower Glen Nevis.
Back to where it all began: the lower slopes of the Ben.
It is nearly three weeks later – and the midge bites have only just stopped itching. I seem to get some kind of delayed reaction – swelling and itching for 24 hours, then it settles – only to start up a couple of weeks later – and then it is quite a number of days until it settles down.
I am back up to Scotland again the second week in December – to put in a week of more rigorous Aconcagua training, with winter established by then. I don’t expect to see any midges and I doubt I’ll see many people. With the short winter hours of daylight it will not be conducive to prolific summit bagging, so there would only be the most diehard Munroists about. And it will be too early in the season for there to be much snow and ice – so not many climbers either.
Then it is off to Aconcagua last days of January – to hopefully be setting foot on the trail towards Plaza Argentina, base camp for the Polish routes, by around the 1st of February. Then climbing solo, I will have around three weeks to make my summit bid.
I am using the event of my Aconcagua attempt to raise funds for a charity, the Hepatitis C Trust – which carries out important international as well as national work raising the profile of this viral time-bomb – which worldwide is five times as common as HIV.
If anyone is interested in Hepatitis C (most people will know someone who has it, or be at risk of having it – and most who have it, do not know they have it…) – or you have enjoyed this TR and would like to make a donation - or just to know more about Hep C, then please click on the link below, which leads into my JustGiving page.
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