Monday, 31 May 2010

A "rest" day on Skye

Monday 31st May 2010

What a beautiful morning!  A perfect blue sky overhead.  Perhaps a day for Bidean a' Choire Sheasgaidh and Lurg Mhor?  Maybe not!  After yesterday's mega-walk, I had a slight tweak in one knee, so decided that my tired muscles needed a rest ...

The Cuillin above the Skye Bridge, seen from Balmacara
After a (Balmacara) hotel breakfast - "did I realise that I had slept right through a fire alarm? - answer No!" - I set off up the road to Kyle and across the bridge to Skye.  The plan was to head up to the north end of Skye and explore the Quiraing (which we had failed to find in mist 30 years ago!).

However, at Broadford, on impulse, I turned left along the Elgol road, passing Kilbride farm, where Anne and I had honeymooned in a log cabin 30 years earlier.  Through Torrin, and down to the shore of Loch Slapin - and there stood Bla Bheinn (Blaven) in all its splendour.  Cue a stop by the shore and many photos ...
Bla Bheinn an Clach Glas above Loch Slapin on a perfect morning
Eventually, I tore myself away from this fantastic view, and continued by car around the head of the loch.  As I passed the car park at the foot of the hill, I was sorely tempted to stop and climb - but reckoned a steep ascent and descent might leave me struggling for the rest of the week, so (regretfully) I drove on by, and down to the road-end at Elgol.

We had been here 29 years ago, to watch the sun set over the Cuillin on a beautiful July evening ...  and experienced a horrible sinking feeling as I wound the camera film forward (as you did in those days!) past 36, then 37, then 38 ....  and realised that I had taken a whole film of 36 photos without the film having been properly loaded!  So no pictures of the climb of Bla Bheinn, or of the sunset from Elgol ... :-(

Now was time to make amends ...

Just one of many pictures I took from Elgol this beautiful morning:
The Cuillin from Elgol
After a while wandering along the beach, and then along the cliff top, I headed back up the road.  I was a bit reluctant to turn my back on the Cuillins on such a fine day, so I stopped and parked at Kilmarie, and decided to walk across to Camusunary.  It would be a good leg stretch to keep me from seizing up altogether, but without any too strenuous ups or downs.  

Five minutes up the track, I heard a car alarm go off back at the car park.  Was it mine? Hesitation...   Probably not, so I carried on walking a bit.  Then I heard it again, and doubt crept in - better go back and check.  So, back down the track!  Sure enough, it was mine!  Just as well I had returned!  Sorted the problem, then set off once again!   This time, I was able to continue, and soon was at the top and looking down on Camas Fhionnairigh (Camusunary), with superb views of the hills behind.  

Camasunary Bay, with Sgurr na Stri and the Cuillins behind
Anne on the Camasunary bridge in 1980
Why stop at Camasunary?  This was a day to continue round to Loch Coruisk!   So, I carried on down the hill, and soon I was strolling across the meadow above the beach.   The suspension footbridge across the river at the far end had been pretty shoogly back in 1980 (right), with missing planks etc.  Now all that was left were the attachment points on either bank.  Fortunately the river was very low, so it was easy enough to hop across on the stepping stones.  

I followed the good path round the point, below Sgurr na Stri, with the waters of Loch Scavaig a deep blue, and the mountains towering ever higher as I got nearer.

on the path round towards Loch Coruisk

David on the "bad step", 1980
Next obstacle approaching - what about the "bad step?"   My memory (for 30 years back) was that it wasn't nearly as bad as some guidebooks described it.

We had managed it fine back in 1980 (left), so surely "no worries!"

Soon I was approaching it, and could see a family making the "crossing".  I was surprised to see that it wasn't really as I had remembered it.  It definitely looked a bit trickier!  I manoeuvred carefully round under the "cave", and peered round to where the family were coming down the "crack" one by one, the Dad helping each one down to safety (below).

OK, was I ready to try it?  I must have looked doubtful, as the Dad offered to help me across.  "It's easy enough going up, but a bit trickier coming down", he said.  

Suddenly, I had cold feet!  I didn't like the look of it at all!  

What if i managed to get "up" (with help around), but couldn't get back down on my own later? 

I retreated, and found a good place from which to sit and watch, about 100m back.  A cup of coffee should steady the nerves!

"This is ridiculous", I said to myself. "Tomorrow you are going on to the Cuillin Ridge with Winky O'Neale, and you're going to have to admit you bottled out on the 'so-called bad step'!  You're going to have to do it!" 

the "bad step", family in the "cave" below the "bad step"
So, once the family had moved off, I returned for another look.  

Very gingerly (as there was no-one around to fish me out of the sea 20m below if I fell) I eased myself up out of the "cave" and astride the crack, then pulled myself upright and got a good fingertip hold on the upper crack, then shuffled my way up.  Two minutes later, I had succeeded!  Whew, what was all the fuss about?!

Once the heartbeat had returned to normal, I continued round the shore, then up the rock slabs for a view up Loch Coruisk (below).  No-one else in sight.  What a dramatic spot!  

Loch Coruisk
The afternoon was drawing on, though, so I couldn't linger if I still wanted to visit the Quiraing before checking in to Uig Youth Hostel (which I had pre-booked). 

So, about turn back to the top of Loch Scavaig.  How would the "bad step" feel in reverse, I wondered?  I suddenly remembered that I had never done it in this direction.  30 years earlier, we had decided to return to Camasunary over the ridge of Sgurr na Stri.  I wonder why??!

The "Bad Step" from the Loch Coruisk end - the route is along the slanting crack across the slab
I waited until a boat load of tourists had headed off back towards Elgol, them, taking my courage in both hands, I climbed up onto the slab.  The top end is the most dangerous bit, I think, as the crack is at its slimmest, just enough for the toe of the boots, and the handholds above are fairly slight.  Slowly, slowly, I edged my way down.  No room for error here.  Gradually the crack widened, and the foothold more secure.  Then a big step down and I was off the crack and on the cave and safe!  Whew!  A combination of relief and exhilaration! 

Now it was time to head back round the point to Camasunary, where I caught up with the family I had been watching earlier on "the step".  We exchanged e-mail addresses, so that I could send them the photos I had taken of them.  

PS  "If you (the Staley family described above) are reading this, did you ever receive the pictures?  I sent them to the e-mail address you gave me, but had no reply?"

The Storr above Loch Fada
Got back to the car at 5pm, with the main planned activity for the day not even begun!  Did I still have time for the Quiraing?  Well, the days are long at the end of May, so ... probably!

I hurried up the road, with a brief stop to buy food in Portree.

As ever, The Storr and its Old Man (right) were looking impressively dramatic against the evening sky, but I had no time to stop, with another 15 miles still to go up the winding road.

Before long, I reached Staffin, and took the turning off up the narrow twisting road, past the graveyard and up the hairpin bends as far as the car park at the top of the escarpment, where an excellent path begins.

I decided trainers would do (a decision I regretted later) - no need to put on my heavy boots - and set off along the lovely level path towards the Quiraing (below):

A mile or so of (mainly) easy walking - there were a couple of eroded sections - and I was at "The Prison" (the notch on the photo above) with "The Needle" towering above me to my left (below). 

The scramble up loose scree / eroded path to the foot of "The Needle" was very unpleasant - probably the most dangerous place I had been all day, especially as it was now after 8pm, and there was no-one else around to help if I slipped.  So - proceeding cautiously, I scrambled on up and round the side of The Needle into a secluded hollow behind it. Various paths led off in different directions, and I followed one up through another very eroded gully between steep cliffs into another green area.  

The Table
How to get up to "The Table" was the next puzzle, but again I found a steep rough path leading up to the next level, and suddenly I was standing on a football-pitch sized green area, with only of a few sheep for company.

If there had been time, I would have liked to get up onto the hillside above the cliffs, but dusk was now falling, and it was time to return to the car.

Could I find my way back through the maze of paths?  Yes, with only one wrong turning!  The descent was pretty hair-raising, with very slippy loose sandy gullies to descend, and nothing much to use as handholds.  However, I made it in one piece, and was soon heading back along to the car.

A short drive across the moor, and I arrived at Uig Youth Hostel, in its beautiful location overlooking Uig Bay:  

The Western Isles ferry arrives in Uig (morning of 1st June)
A superb and varied day!   So much for a rest!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

38,37: Ceathreamhnan and Dheiragain

Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain

These two remote Munros have been on my target list for a year or two, but require a good long day to reach.  The chance came along at the end of May.  With Anne off to Whithaugh Park with Selkirk High School youngsters for a week, I had deliberately kept my diary free, and fingers crossed for a good week of weather.  And so it proved ...

Firstly, names!  Often shortened to "C and D" for fairly obviously reasons, but 2 questions to be answered:  what do the names mean, and how should they be pronounced?

Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan means the "peak of the quarters", pronounced approximately "scoor nan kerrufnan".  Mullach na Dheiragain means "hill of the kestrels", pronounced "moolluch na Yerakin".

base camp at Killillan
I had figured out a circular route beginning and ending in Glen Elchaig, which should take around 12 hours - maybe 14 hours if I included a detour over An Socach - so an early start we required.

I drove up on Saturday afternoon - coffee at Blair Atholl Watermill (highly recommended) and fish supper at Kyle of Lochalsh - and parked in the car park at Killillan, where the public road ends.   Fell asleep in the back of the Espace to the sound of rain on the roof!

looking toward the hills from Carnach

Woke at 5am - rain had stopped, but cloud ominously low, so snuggled back down in the sleeping bag.  Had another look at 7am, and spotted some blue sky through a break in the could, so got up, had breakfast, got the bike out ready to go, and set off up Glen Elchaig at 8am.

Initially a tarred road, then a good landrover track gradually climbing up the glen, past the Falls of Glomach.  Reached Carnach at the top end of Loch na Leitreach, 11km up the glen, at 8.55am and tied up my bike.  I could have cycled on up to Iron Lodge, but the plan was to come off the hill above Carnach on foot at the end of the day.  A pleasant half-hour walk brought me to Iron Lodge - the herd of cattle seemed unperturbed as I walked through them!   

Form Iron Lodge to the first top, Mullach na Sithidh, was only 4 miles on the map, but took fully 3 hours.

The first section was hard work, following a good path as it zig-zagged steeply up the side of the classic u-shaped valley, providing a great view back down the glen (right).   

Within a few minutes, though, the gradient eased off as the path wound its way up the hanging valley to Loch an Droma.  

Just beyond the loch, I branched off the main path to cross a couple of large burns - fortunately each was spanned by a construction of old railway sleepers.  

The steep grassy slopes of Mullach Sithidh now stood directly ahead, and had to be tackled pretty well head-on.   This was hard going, but glimpses of the snowy summit of Ceathreamhnan (left)  encouraged me to continue (and gave an excuse for photo stops).  Even on reaching the crest of the ridge at about 700m, it was still a long slog up the summit ridge.  

At 12.25, I flopped gratefully onto the summit rocks, sheltered from the cool breeze by the small cairn.  1 top down, 7 more to go!

Cac na Con Dhu from Mullach na Dheiragain,
with Ceathreamhnan in the distance

The cloud that had been lingering around the tops had now lifted clear, and the way ahead to Ceathreamhnan along the broad ridge of Mullach na Dheiragain was now visible (right).  After a 20 minute rest, it only took 10 minutes to reach the summit of Dheiragain, around its eastern coire.  A 5 minute pause there (12.55-13.00), before continuing along the ridge to the next top Cac na Con Dhu, with the bulk of Carn Eighe and Mam Sodhail across the deep glen to the left.  

Here I met the first other walkers of the day, who had come up from the Glen Affric side and were heading out to Dheiragain.  Continued over Cac na Con Dhu's multiple summits (not sure which bit is the highest) and paused for a rest on a rocky outcrop looking towards Ceathreamhnan at around 14.00.  

on the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan
The ridge ahead looked quite daunting, but proved shorter than it appeared.  Only the last 50m required careful footwork up a steep snowy crest to the summit (15.00).

After a brief pause for a photo (left), I continued gingerly along the snowy arete leading to the snow-covered West Top. There were no footprints, so looked like I was first person along there today!

Soon, I was climbing up the snowy slope to the west top - only 8m lower that the main summit, giving Ceathreamhnan its characteristic twin peak profile.

In contrast to the main summit, however, the west top proved to be a broad plateau, covered in packed snow, with dramatic cornices at its northern edge (right).

looking down the north ridge from Ceathreamhnan's west top
The views to the west were now superb, with the clouds dispersing to reveal blue sky over the distant hills and islands.  Time for a longer rest before making the descent and return to Glen Elchaig!

The homeward route looked inviting, down the initially snowy north ridge, then over 3 further Munro tops - Stuc Bheag (1075m), Stuc Mhor (1041m) and Stuc Fraoch Choire (918m).  

This was a lovely descent - all the hard work now over, the weather improving, and fine views in all directions.   

Time to stop and enjoy the view from each of the three rocky tops in turn:  Stuc Bheag (16.00-16.10), Stuc Mhor (16.25-16.40), and Stuc Fraoch Choire (17.05-17.15) overlooking Loch an Fraoch Choire.

looking back to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan's main top from the north ridge (right)
west to Skye from Stuc Mhor on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan
Leaving the final top at 17.15, a long grassy descent led down to Loch Lon Mhurchaidh, where I joined a stalker's path leading down beside a lovely waterfall to Carnach.

Then came the most nerve-racking part of the day - negotiating a herd of highland cattle with their calves.   I'm glad to say they behaved well as I made my nervous way through them and safely back to my bike at Carnach at 18.45!

The return cycle back down the glen only took 45 minutes, mostly freewheeling - a good way to end  a long day.  

Tired legs - so decided to treat myself to B&B and a bath at the Balmacara Hotel - bliss!


2 Munros + 6 Tops
22km cycling
21km walking
1600m climbing
11 hrs 30 mins