Thursday 27 March 2014

Call of the Highlands

It is not easy to be trapped indoors while a beautiful world waits out there to be explored. It is not safe either to walk the highlands when winds of 30 mph are battering the cities, the gusts would be much stronger in the open and higher ground. When I have been thrown around within city limits (they were 70 mph gusts though), what chances do I stand in the wilderness. So, as my frustration builds up, the mind takes solace in memories.
This is a story I have repeated many a times in various friend circles. It was an experience that has opened my eyes about the risks of being unprepared on the hills while leaving me quite shaken up as well.

It was in August last year, 2013. Work had run into crisis and I was being stretched to my limit, working late nights and weekends. I had barely seen a holiday in the past six months and was desperate to stretch my legs and needed a breathe of fresh air. The forthcoming weekend had a slim hope as the work pressure seemed to ebb a bit. However, the weather forecast looked horrendous through the week and getting slightly better over the weekend. But would I care? Anything was better than being holed up at home or at work hunched over the laptop. If nothing worked out I could simply finish off another of my incomplete thrillers relaxing in the lounge of one of the youth hostels in the highlands. I needed a place to go.

Though the outdoors always beckoned, I took very slowly to hillwalking. The main reason was, without a companion and no experience at all, I did not feel safe treading up the treacherous hills. I did not have much confidence on my physical ability - as to whether my lungs and legs are strong enough to haul me all the way up to the top and back. Even now it's more will than ability that drives me on these walks. And adding to that, my dubious sense of direction, which I should say has though improved in the past ten years, it still has immense scope of improvement.

The only munro I had bagged was the Ben Lomond, which with a proper path leading to the top wasn't much of a navigation challenge - physically, it still was. I was hoping to add one more to my list before I left Scotland, something that will not be too difficult either and possible to be done on my own. Crianlarich looked like a good option with 11 munros within walking distance - at least one would be suitable for me I hoped. The youth hostel had a space as well, so booked myself in for the weekend.

The weather forecast was true to the hilt. We were hit by torrential rain through the week while I slogged the days away at work and at home. Even when Saturday approached and I started off on the Citylink service, the sky was dark and it was drizzling. I had taken the Monday off and would be back to work on Tuesday, that was the plan. I reached Crianlarich close to noon, a cluster of houses in the foothills of the towering Ben More. Ironically, there could not have been a more insignificant place on earth that has the most direction signs pointing to it than on any other place in UK. It's significance being its location, at the intersection of the A82 and A85, the major arteries of Scotland - hence the traffic pointers, and on the West Highland Way - hence the tourist pointers.

I needed some quiet after the excitement at work, hence was not complaining. I trotted over to the youth hostel by the train station.

After I had dumped my non essential stuffs at the hostel I asked what I could possibly do for the rest of the day. In that weather, the best would be a walk on the West Highland Way, I was suggested by Neil from the hostel. The torrential rain had stopped, but it was still very wet with the intermittent drizzles. So, I grabbed a sandwich from the local convenience store and decided to walk to Tyndrum, about 6 miles. I would take the bus back to Crianlarich.

It was a beautiful walk through the woods. The recent rains had caused all streams to run full and thankfully rather picturesquely. The sun and the clouds played magic with the mountain scenery. It was a walk interrupted by many stops as I was soaking in the atmosphere and scenery.
I met a weather battered hiker who was doing the West Highland Way and we chatted for a bit, especially about the weather, before he raced on - a man on mission. I was in my jeans, which I was aware would be considered as a taboo in such activities and he was soon to point that out too - be properly dressed. I was not going further than Tyndrum anyway and this was an unplanned leisurely walk to relax.
The rain was relentless. At times, and unfortunately when there was no place for cover, it returned with a vengeance. I desperately needed a hot drink by the time I reached the Auchtertyre farm. Perhaps it was the weather that made it so difficult to squeeze a smile from the lady serving it up. I was more than halfway through the path, and recharged was on my way soon.
I reached Tyndrum at about 5pm, took me close to 4 hours with all the stops I had made. Foremost, I was hungry. I checked the bus timings for getting back to Crianlarich and decided I could have a 45mins stop. So stuffed in at The Green Welly.
Back at the hostel had a chat with Neil and Ross about my plan for the next day. They suggested I could either try the An Casteal or the Cruach Ardrain, both close to the hostel. Ross, being much younger was ecstatic and said they were both very easy and chalked out a path for me on the map. Neil was far more cautious in his approach and suggested I could try the Cruach Ardrain instead and suggested an alternative route, which he hoped would be less boggy than the one Ross had suggested. So, that was my plan - to go to Cruach Ardrain on Sunday. It's just that there wasn't any path to get me on the start to the hill and I would have to find a way through the fir trees, if I could spot it. The path was drawn out on the map. Given my history of being lost, this worried me a bit.

Woke up early and it was not raining and looked brighter. That cheered me up and feeling more confident I set off at 8am. The gradual uphill path started just behind the hostel which would take me to the fir trees from where I had to start up the hill. I was keeping close eye on the map so as to not take the wrong turns on the forks and measuring my distances. After about a half hour walk, it looked like I had reached the fir trees I had to go through. I was fairly confident as I had spotted every fork and stream and terrain on the map, my navigation was just fine. I was told the path would be a bit boggy and I should go through it rather than try to go under the trees. As I started off, the grass and the ground were wet from the past week's rain and my feet sunk in. And just as fate would have it, a fresh downpour started. I was being drenched from the ground and the sky. The bog was worse than what I was told and after trodding knee deep through it I realised I could not go any further without sinking in it or getting stuck. Reluctantly, I decided to return and try it the next day if it didn't rain any more. I changed into dry clothes I was carrying and returned back to the hostel. Even though the kitchen was closed, I was allowed to make me some tea to warm up after the mini ordeal. While sipping on the tea in the lounge I replanned my day and decided to take the path towards Inverarnan on the West Highland Way. It was indeed a beautiful day and after the morning shower had stopped raining altogether. The sun was out and the scenery was beautiful. I decided to turn back after a couple of miles on the Highland Way as I was not in the mood to take up steep inclines on the day. With the re planning, I ended up photographing the hills I was supposed to be on.
Spent the afternoon relaxing at the Rod and Reel over a late lunch. It could not get any more Scottish than this - Haggis, Neeps and Tatties with IRN BRU, accompanied by Rebus.
It was another planning night and I was hoping I could make it through the bogs the next day. As I was having a chat with Neil, a very excited lady joined our discussion. She asked if I was going to the munro and whether she could join me. I was more than willing to have a company. Catherine was from France and she was volunteering at SYHA during the school holidays. She had been on a few munros in a group and was yet to go up the hills in Crianlarich. She was indeed glad to join me and so was I. We decided to leave at 9am next day.

Maybe sensing two lost souls venturing out in the wild, Neil hinted that he may join us, but he would have to return by noon as he was going off to Glenfinnan for some more hill walking. Unfortunately, Catherine's alarm did not go off and we did not start before 10:30am.

As we followed Neil, I was elated to find I had taken the right path through the fir trees the day before. My navigational skills were working! Moreover, after a day without significant rain and a good amont of sunshine, today the ground was much firmer and it was easier to find footholds. We soon went beyond the place I could reach the day before without getting wet and then, it got very boggy again. With some help that involved both pulling and pushing, I eventually managed to get to the top of the tree line. Since Neil would be leaving us soon, we decided not to take the same path on our way back but instead take a detour that would take us further away from the hostel but through drier grounds and would add another 3 miles to the route that was close to 7 miles. A safer and wiser choice we all agreed. As Neil wished us luck and left, we started on a very leisurely walk up the hills, too leisurely I realised later.
Cruach Ardrain was visible at a distance at the end of the ridge under cloud cover and we could see the two hills we had to go over to reach it. Though it continued to be a very boggy walk requiring frequent retracing the steps as we manoeuvred round the hill tops of Grey Heights and Meall Dhamh, we were enjoying the walk and each other's company. It was already 1 pm by the time we were still somewhere on the Meall Dhamh and I had started to worry. With all the chatting, photo breaks and simply staring at the scenery, we were getting late and I started to rush Catherine up. Even though she was enjoying the walk, she had started to worry that we might get lost and needed some amount of convincing to not return yet.
The walk was as nice as always is on the Scottish hills. The feeling of being humbled in the vast wilderness with not a soul around, apart from a few sheep staring incredulously at these strange humans. The calmness that seeps into the soul, as long as I am not panicking about getting lost. Here, we could not get lost as long as we followed the ridge. It formed a natural path. It was comforting to have a company though.
The final climb up the Cruach Ardrain was quite strenuous. Not only was it steep, but the rains had changed the rocky mountain paths to natural streams. I was more worried about the descent, and so needed good visibility on the way back. The cloud cover was still there and there was forecast of more rain in the afternoon. It took close to an hour to make the final climb and eventually when we reached the top with the twin cairns, the clock showed 3pm. We could have reached at least an hour earlier, however the exhilaration that comes with reaching the top subdues any other feelings. It was very windy at the top with clouds floating around us. It was a beautiful view though was kept wondering how it would look on a clear day. After a quick bite under the shelter of the rocks, we started the descent in another half hour.
Both of us were elated at our feat of eventually reaching the top, and having managed to scramble down the wet steep path, it added to our excitement. By now, we had turned into complete chatterboxes and were not paying much attention to where we were going. Needless to say, even though we knew we were on the Grey Heights, we had completely lost the faint boggy path we had followed on the way up. We had ended up in a part of the hill that had steep grassy inclines and bogs. It was 5pm and as per the forecast, the rains had returned. The clouds were coming down fast as well and visibility had worsened. My phone battery was charged but didn't have signal, Catherine's had intermittent signal but no charge. The thought of switching SIM cards was kept on hold unless we really got into trouble. We were also desperate to avoid the extreme bog by the fir trees and eager to get on to the path that would take us across the river Falloch on to the path to the A82. So, we decided to take the path as the crow flies. This in ideal conditions would be the fastest route, but on the hills with its varying terrain, streams, vegetation and bogs, this is not always a brilliant idea. But we progressed, relentless, bum sliding when walking was treacherous, getting down onto the streams when the undergrowth became too thick and thorny to walk through till we reached the banks of the Falloch. We were now faced with two options - walk on the bog for a mile to get to the bridge to cross the river, or cross the river on the rocks and scramble up the banks to get on to the path. Catherine was for walking in the bog and though I went with her reluctantly, after a few feet I gave up and decided to cross the river. She too realised it as a better option. So, taking of the shoes, for better grip rather than for keeping them dry, we carefully stepped on the rocks as we crossed the gushing waters. I slipped only once and drenched whatever was dry on me before eventually scrambling up the banks on the other side. I felt a sense of relief running down me as we found the path to the A82. Catherine could not stop laughing saying what an adventure it was when only a few moments ago she was worrying herself to death - the laugh said it all. She switched on her phone and found concerned messages from Ross. We should have returned a long while back. The path was boggy, extreme in places, but we did not care any more. We were just glad to be walking on it. It was 7:30pm when we finally reached the hostel. I had missed my last bus and could not get to work the next day. Secretly I was rejoicing apart from the fact that I had to go up a hill outside the hostel to call up my manager,  the phone was unreachable in the hostel.

I was not booked in for the night, and even though there were beds available Catherine insisted I be her guest. Both of us were equally tired, but while I was taking a much needed hot shower to relax my aching muscles, she was busy cooking. I was touched by her genuine happiness in having me as her guest. She thanked me for being with her when we were faced with trouble and being supportive. We had a leisurely supper talking about home and work and of course our day. Ross had experimented with soup which he offered to both of us. He could not stop laughing at us and refused to believe that we had intentionally taken the opposite route to avoid the bog.

I left early next morning, while Catherine was still in bed as I had to get to work by lunch. She was tired and also had her day off, so I didn't want to wake her up. However, she heard me as I was leaving and gave me a big hug. She would be leaving for home from Edinburgh and we hoped to meet again soon.

I could not stop grinning on the bus which I almost missed again. I needed a respite from the grueling work and had no idea my weekend break would end up in an adventure. A lot of it can be attributed to our lack of experience in hill walking and navigation. We might have struggled but had eventually slipped and slid through it, managing to make it in one piece - a memory I still relish as I put words to it now. I had read about the walk on my return and everywhere it mentioned the extreme bog, the strenuous climb and the problems faced in wet weather. That provided some relief that we had not done a very bad job. It was graded at 3.5 on a scale of 5 after all. And more so ever, both of us had found new friends in each other. Neil has since emailed me asking if I had plans to visit Crianlarich again and he might be able to accompany me if he was free then. I am thinking of writing him back - I am waiting for summer.

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