Ulog 21: Serious Bagging – a bit of a setback!October 13, 2018
My plan last Wednesday was to do the “Ring of Steall”, a very strenuous walk that takes in four Munros, three “tops” and an airy ridgewalk. I’ve been trying to reach my 100th Munro, and I would like that to be the double Munro walk of Ben Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg. So far, I’ve climbed 94 of these mountains over 3,000 feet.
However I think my goal is slipping away. The weather has been atrocious over the past few months, and with winter approaching, the nights are drawing in. The Ben Nevis and Carn More Dearg climb is estimated to take 10 to 11 hours to complete, and there are currently slightly less than 11 hours of daylight in the region. With very high winds and wet weather forecast for the next 10 days, I’m thinking that Ben Nevis is probably not going to be my 100th Munro after all!
Maybe I’ll make it my final Munro instead. There are 282 of them! It would be nice to finish, or “compleat”, on the UK’s highest mountain.
I left home at 4.30am on Wednesday, full of high hopes for the walk ahead, but also pretty nervous. The weather forecast was for just one dry, sunny day amidst weeks of strong wind and heavy rain. It looked like the eye of the storm – the winds were forecast to be fairly strong, with a lull for a couple of hours around lunchtime. I wasn’t keen to do the exposed part of the Ring of Steall known as the Devil’s Ridge in 40mph winds, gusting up to 50mph at times. If I started my walk just before sunrise, at 7.15am (the drive to the start of the walk is about two and a half hours), I thought I might be at the Devil’s Ridge long before 3pm, when the wind was forecast to get stronger again.
In fact, my walk didn’t start until 7.55am, as I had a few minor delays along the way.
The walk through Glen Nevis was beautiful.
The Ring of Steall takes its name from a dramatic waterfall known as “An Steall”, or “The Spout”. It’s some spout!
As I approached the falls, I saw a group of green tents and a lot of young people standing around. I wondered if they were doing a guided walk in the area. I walked past them on my way to the next challenge: the notorious steel bridge.
The steel bridge is made up of three cables strung across the Water of Nevis river. Two of the cables are for gripping as tightly as possible with your hands, and the bottom one is for your feet. The structure sways gently as you cross. The river below is quite shallow, and some people prefer to just wade through.
The steel bridge.
A friend who did this walk a few weeks ago (when I was out of action due to a sprained ankle) had assured me that I’d do it no problem, so I tried not to think too much about it, and launched out.
I was aware that there were two groups of people watching my crossing – young teenagers eating their breakfast at one side of the “bridge” and a group of young adults at the other side. I just looked at my feet and tried to act as if I’d crossed it many times before – while at the same time, clinging on for dear life! Falling in would be unlikely to result in serious injury or death, but I would certainly get very wet and bruised, with maybe some broken bones.
No way José!
Once on the other side of the river, I made my way along the path that led towards Steall Falls. There is a confluence of rivers at this point, which is why you have two crossings to make, and the second one is usually done via stepping stones. But to my dismay, when I reached the point just below the cascading waterfall, where the crossing is usually made, the river was in torrent and totally impassable (probably not surprising, given the amount of rain we’ve been having recently).
I walked downriver, hoping to see a shallower stretch, but to no avail. I could have put on my waterproof trousers and waded through, but my feet would have got very wet, and I didn’t want to start off a very tough day’s walk with soaking wet feet.
Also, time was moving on, and with limited daylight hours to complete the walk, I decided to beat a retreat. It was a big disappointment. And it meant I would have to cross the steel bridge again!
The water was deeper at one side, the side that was nearest to me as I started to inch my way across again. As I stared down at my feet, the swirling water started to make me feel dizzy and disoriented, so I had to look up, and I found I was looking at the group of teenagers gathered on the other side, who were watching me with astonishment.
About to cross back over the Water of Nevis.
I’m not sure why they were standing there, but I had a brief exchange with their supervisors, who told me that they had no plans to do the Ring of Steall, and were just doing camping and walks in the glen. They might have been doing their Duke of Edinburgh award.
A change of plan
Walking back, I met some people who were going to climb Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag, the start of which was just across the glen. I considered joining them, but frustratingly, although I had printed out a route map of this a while back, I’d left it at home, and I was unable to access the online version on my phone. They are very big mountains and I didn’t feel it was safe to try climbing them without a route map (although I did have a 1:25,000 map of the area with me).
Instead, I drove back to the nearby town of Fort William, where I was able to get a wifi signal, and downloaded route maps of a couple of slightly less strenuous hills not too far away: Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin and Stob Coire Easain.
I had to drive to a very pretty spot near the village of Fersit to access these hills, and walk to Loch Treig before starting the upwards climb. It was 11am by the time I set off, and sunset was at 6.30pm, so I tried to walk briskly over the boggy ground.
As I gained ascent, the hills around Loch Laggan in the distance looked lovely in the autumnal colours.
I almost stepped on a frog, and just managed to lift up my foot in time. It was nice weather for frogs.
On the way up the first Munro, Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin, you have to climb up a protruberance known as Meall Cian Dearg (which I think means The Distant Red Hill). I usually love climbing up steep rocky embankments, but the recent heavy rainfall made the rocks slippy, and although there was a good path, there were a couple of very exposed sections where the path had been badly eroded. There was one particularly unnerving bit that I hopped over, dreading to think how I would tackle it on the way back down.
Once I got to the top of Meall Cian Dearg, at an altitude of almost 800m, I got my first glimpse of the summit mound, and it looked dauntingly large. The summit of Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin is 1,105m, so I had a further 300m to ascend, with quite a long walk to go along a boggy plateau.
Unfortunately within minutes of my sight of the summit mound, it became enveloped in cloud.
Summit of Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin.
There was quite a dramatic view across Loch Treig to Stob Coire Sgriodain, a mountain I climbed a few months ago. The big dark cloud had spread itself over the summit.
Stob Coire Sgriodain and Loch Treig.
As I started to ascend further, the wind strengthened so sharply that I wondered if it was safe to continue on my own. I didn’t want to risk being blown over the side by a sudden gust.
I sat down to have my lunch and think about it. As I was eating, a border collie bounced over to me, followed by another dog and then their owner, striding along happily. He seemed to have no concerns about the strong wind.
As I was clearly not going to be alone on the mountain, I decided to press on.
Walking through a cloud
The wind became more subdued the higher I climbed. I think it was just that very unsheltered plateau that caught the really high winds, though it was still pretty strong as I started to walk along the summit ridge.
Visibility was very poor – I was only able to see a few feet in front of me.
On a clear day the views from this ridge would have been spectacular. I reached an altitude of 990m, and could see from my map that the summit was about half a kilometer away. It was 2pm, and it had taken me three hours to get this far. In four and a half hours it would be sunset.
The man with two dogs was way ahead, and although I have good navigational skills, I really didn’t feel comfortable walking along a remote windy ridge in thick cloud. I was pretty tired too, having been up since 4am, so I decided to call it a day and retreat.
Munro bagging is great fun, but I didn’t want to put my safety at risk for the sake of a few numbers. I wanted to come back and really enjoy climbing these mountains on a clear day with great views.
I wasn’t looking forward to the steep descent down the slippery rock face of Meall Cian Dearg. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, although when I reached the badly eroded section, I decided to scramble up the embankment to avoid the narrowest part. Even this was risky, as the embankment was made up of scrub and mud, which looked as if it could also come away. I tested my footholds carefully before putting my weight on them.
Once I was on flatter ground, I noticed a couple with a dog in the distance, standing near a hyro pillar. When I approached them, they told me they had intended to climb the two mountains, but had decided not to risk crossing the eroded section, and had turned back. When they saw me coming down the steep bit, they had watched to see how I got over that bit. Maybe they were keeping a protective eye out for me, in case I fell.
This made me realise that the path might have partially fallen away in a recent landslip, and I reported it to a couple of mountaineering organisations the following day. I regret that I didn’t take a photo of it to show them.
Hairy caterpillar. I’m not an expert on caterpillars, but I think it might be an Oak Eggar or a Northern Eggar.
I was back on level ground by 4pm, and I realised that I could have managed to complete both summits and get back by sunset. I had a head torch with me, and spare batteries. But I felt satisfied that I had made the right decision to return. I didn’t really fancy driving all the way back in the dark, and those mountains will be much more enjoyable on a clear day when I can see the lovely views.
As I walked along the western bank of Loch Treig, it looked lovely in the late afternoon light.
I took a last look back towards Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin. The stubborn bank of cloud was still enveloping the summit.
The day had been a bit of a failure, in that I had failed to bag any new Munros. But it was a success in other ways. I had been out enjoying nature in the sunshine and fresh air. And I had improved my fitness. When your goal is to climb all of Scotland’s Munros, you need to stay in good shape!