Guest blog by Iain, who’s been on a number of wild camping trips this spring … while I’ve been recovering from a knee injury … more on that to follow in a later blog…
April and early May are perhaps the most precious time of year for me for getting out into the mountains: in a good year you can head out with lightweight gear and camp in the middle of nowhere….without then being imprisoned in your tent by a ravening horde of midges, scratching on the canvas (crooning ‘little pig, little pig, let me in’ … that’s when it gets really creepy) baying for your blood. Sure you can camp before spring comes and avoid them – but that then involves also carrying an axe, crampons, winter tent, and 4-season sleeping bag. OK, so any self-respecting mountaineer should be able to do this, but is it really all that much fun shuffling along like an over-laden mule? One way to cope is of course to set up a base camp somewhere convenient and then head up the chosen mountains; however, this then sacrifices the wonderful freedom you get from carrying everything all the time – the ability to go anywhere you choose and stop whenever you get tired or happen to find that perfect camping spot.
So, there is often only a narrow window between when it starts to get warmer and the midges appearing – and this year looked to be an especially narrow window, with late snows and then pretty miserable conditions. A first attempt to head into Fisherfield at the start of May had already been thwarted by very heavy rain and strong winds. Even worse, that same weekend also saw the first of the midges up near Carn Ban….curses…and I had so been looking forward to trying out my new tent!
Then, towards the end of May, a period of really promising weather rolled in – warm and sunny – and I figured that if I camped high enough then I could escape the midges. I had been out for a trial run a couple of weeks earlier, heading south from Laggan, over the ‘Creag Pitridh Three’ (does anyone ever remember the names of the other two hills on that circuit???) and over to ‘That Chain of Four to the NW of Ben Alder’ (again, their names don’t really spring to mind all that readily to most people: mention Carn Dearg and Geal Carn – red hill and white hill, respectively – and you could be referring to any number of hills in the Scottish Highlands!). I had been pleasantly surprised by the weight of my rucksack – light enough that everything could be carried up and over each mountain without it being unpleasant or making progress too slow. The bad thing with carrying everything (especially when you decide to add a few litres of water as you approach time for bedding down – after all, you never quite know if there will be water later on) is that you can hit the wall and lose all energy quite suddenly and have to stop. I was puttering my way down An Lairig – quite a find, a wide glen, with a lovely meandering stream and hills rising steeply for 2000 ft on either side – when suddenly I could go no further. Fortunately I found a perfect spot on a grassy patch surrounded by a loop of the stream.
Unfortunately (I had heard it was difficult to get back in the bag) I had not tried out the tent beforehand, and was completely flummoxed by the instructions. I had watched a video of erecting it online and there was also a little card showing how it was done (pin the corners, slot the pole in and tighten: job done)…neither of which bore any resemblance to reality. The instructions did rather rely on the outer and inner already being connected, rather than one perfectly folded inside a pocket of the other. In my tiring state it took me about an hour. During this period the wind dropped and I prepared myself for the worst, having already seen midges up high on Creag Pitridh earlier in the day….but my fears were unfounded and none appeared. Clearly I was more tired than I had thought, as even a cup-a-soup tasted like soul food (and as for the cask strength whisky…!).
Anyway, two weeks later, with the arrival of the good weather and a practise run under my belt, I headed for Rannoch station and, from there, got the train one stop up the line to Corrour (as featured in the movie Trainspotting….but we won’t repeat anything from that scene here!). I had been to Corrour years before and found a lovely little tea shop. It (The Corrour Station House) has now morphed into what, to me anyway, was an excellent little restaurant serving superb food…and drink. I decided to make my camp food last a bit longer by having fish and chips at the Station House – which was excellent – before starting out. Sadly, I also had a beer. ‘Sadly’ because I enjoyed it so much that it then preyed on my mind for the next 48 hrs until I managed to get back for another one. After that, somewhat grudgingly, I picked up my inexplicably now-overweight rucksack and headed off into the gloriously warm late-afternoon sunshine to climb Leum Uilleim (a Corbett). The plan had been to trundle down the far side, past the bothy, then round and up to a lochan at the bottom of the next target, Glas Bheinn (another Corbett) but I suddenly hit the wall a little short of the bothy and had to find somewhere to stop. Finding a campsite proved very tricky – there just wasn’t anywhere dry and flat.
Eventually I settled on a little island in the stream, only to find that it had some small but very determined grassy tussocks in exactly the wrong places for lying comfortably. I was rather quicker putting up the tent, but then squandered that time gained by the need to move it around several times before a reasonable night’s sleep seemed possible. The first error was having the entrance the wrong way round, such that sleepily exiting in the night would have meant plunging over the bank and straight into the river. The tent is a Nordisk Telemark 2 and seems pretty special to me: there is just about room for 2 people, a porch for your gear and it only weighs 900 g! Considerably less than that 1 litre Sigg bottle filled with water (or whisky). Incredibly this has not been achieved by the use of extensive amounts of mesh in the inner tent (which the wind howls straight through) or by the use of thin and flimsy material (my other tent nearly got destroyed trying to put it up the first time – it was wrapped in a bin liner and I was at the point of tearing it off when I realised that this gossamer thin ‘bin liner’ was in fact the fly sheet). The only downsides were that it wasn’t quite tall enough to sit upright in (e.g. for putting on boots) and the inner hung down too much, such that it rested against the toes of my sleeping bag, and thus was a bit unpleasant in the morning when wet with condensation. Again the wind dropped and I waited for the worst…but still no midges, even at just below 400 metres in altitude. Phew, as they say, ‘game on!’
With so few good camping spots available, I decided it was worth just leaving the tent where it was for a couple of days. However, the real reason was that I was struggling with the weight. A quick inventory told me what was different this time. 1) Water filter: about 500 g – not gratuitous when camping lower down, and does mean you can carry less water at all times, needing only a tiny stream for a refill; 2) Pertex bivvy bag, again weighs about 500 g, but with a thin sleeping bag I had been getting cold two weeks ago and slept in all my clothes and jackets (plus insulted shorts and gloves) – with this over my sleeping bag I was nice and warm….but still had the same amount of clothing with me to ensure I could lounge around outside the tent or camp high; 3) change of clothes (so much more civilised when doing that lounging around when not wearing t-shirt and underwear that now contains three days of sweat; 4) ah, two things of antibacterial hand-gel (do I really then need a tube of antiseptic cream in my first aid kit?), a little biodegradable shower gel (again, if being clean adds enough to your enjoyment, then is that too much of a price to pay? Trick is to fill a big container with water and leave it to warm in the tent all day), a little towel….hmm, not the smartest bit of packing there. Anyway, all these little things all add up and there was probably 3 kg of stuff I could have jettisoned.
Next morning, with a mostly empty pack, I headed north up the glen – this was not the quick and easy walk I had anticipated and immediately suggested that I had messed up on my strategy by camping so far down the glen. Anyway, it was a lovely day and I headed up to Loch Treig, found the bridge and continued up to Stob Coire Easain. The previous day’s efforts seemed to have taken their toll and it all felt very hard work – so hard that I didn’t even go on to do it near neighbour, Stob Coire Mheadhoin (pronounced “Vane” by the way, in case you are wondering!). These are usually called ‘The Easains’, they are almost invariably done from the North, and it is almost unheard of just to do one on its own – but this was clearly going to be a long and exhausting walk back and it seemed sensible not to head any further away from the distant tent….so while I pondered matters, I had a little sleep on the summit and looked around a bit. The Easains are stunningly well-placed: you have the chain of the Grey Corries to the west, ending with the Aonachs and Nevis; to the south of there the chain of the Mamores starts; and to the south of there lies Glen Coe and even more stunning peaks. On the way back the problems started: not my blistered feet, tiring muscles and aching back, but the craving for a beer at the Station House. When I got back to Loch Treig I spent nearly half an hour sitting and deliberating – it couldn’t be much more than an hour and a half to the pub could it, and from there it wasn’t much more than a two and a half hours back up and over to my tent, was it? Fortunately common sense got the better of me for once and I took the direct route back up the glen. Amusingly I later spoke to someone who had the same thoughts as me but had been armed with a bike and thus cycled through to the pub (though I believe the beers did not sit all that well with him after that). Anyway, next morning nothing was going to stop me – a quick up and over to Glas Bheinn and back to collect the tent, before finding a suitable compromise between distance and altitude to get over Leum Uilleim again and down to the Station House….where I was greeted with a sign that said it was closed from 4.30 to 6.30 pm for a large party. To say I nearly cried would be an understatement. Fortunately I was just ahead of the 4.30 embargo and they were happy for me to eat outside (no complaints there, bit breezy but a stunning day) if I ordered immediately, and they indicated that keeping me supplied with drinks would not be a problem. After all that anticipation neither the food nor drink let me down (though the beers may have played a part in my later navigation errors). Once satiated, I headed over the Loch Ossian in the glorious evening sunshine – meeting lots of people staying in the youth hostel heading to the pub for their dinner – and promptly took the wrong path (aiming to take the main track back to Rannoch, camp at a ruin at 500 metres, zip up Carn Dearg the next morning, back down to collect tent, and walk back to Rannoch station).
….unfortunately, with those contact lenses in, I am unable to read fine details on the map (nothing to do with the beer, honest) and missed the start of the path. I could have slogged up through the heather and bog to reach it….I should have slogged up the muck to reach it. However, the map showed another path further along the loch side, so I would just do 2 sides of the triangle…after all it was a lovely evening and Loch Ossian was stunning. Never found the path. Eventually found a narrow path that took me up a little ways before it disappeared. After some choice words, I figured that my only option was to slog up the horribly steep and wet hill side, covered in waist-deep undergrowth, already tired from a long day, carrying an overly heavy pack, having had perhaps a little too much to drink, and climb Carn Dearg that evening. As I struggled up, finally reaching open hill side and less deep heather, I suddenly came across a narrow grassy ledge that was almost flat…and just big enough for the tent. Ten minutes later the tent was up and I was sitting looking out over Loch Ossian and Beinn na Lap, bathed in the still-warm evening sun, with views out to Ben Alder on one side and the Mamores on the other…and armed with a nice cold can of coke, bought in the restaurant for such times (wonder why I didn’t think to grab another beer…I suppose a heavy glass bottle would not have helped progress). Slight issue was a complete lack of water, which required a long wander around the hillside, listening intently for the gurgle of water. Eventually I found a hole to a tiny stream a metre down, through which I could lower the end of the tubing of the water filter (definitely worth the 500 g weight of bringing it along) and fill up bottles.
Next morning I packed up and headed up Carn Dearg nice and early intending to continue down the long ridge to Rannoch station; however, a quick glance to the west to the Station House, combined with a few choice blisters on my toes, suggested the shorter way back, via Corrour, could be more appropriate. About an hour and a half later, I was persuading them that it would be really nice if they were to start serving hot food early and an excellent venison burger was on its way, as I waited for the train (sadly no beer though, as I would be driving once I exited the train).
OK, so not exactly everyone’s idea of ‘Into The Wild’ (me included!) – but you have to admit that being able to wander mountains and glens so off the beaten track that you don’t meet a single person for four days, and yet orbit a splendid restaurant and pub does have a certain appeal to it!?
[Note: ‘Into The Wild’ is a book by Jon Krakauer, later made into a movie, that recounts the true story of Chris McCandless, who gave away all his money and, after a nomadic existence, headed out into the wilds of Alaska, where his attempts to survive out in the bush failed and he met with his untimely death.
A big ‘thank-you’ to the Corrour Station House, which comes highly recommended, and saved Iain from certain starvation … it’s rather worrying to receive a text from someone telling you that they’d run out of food!]