Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Benighted on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Mullach na Dheiragain from near the summit of  Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

I panted my way to the summit of Mullach na Dheiragain at 2030 hrs.  After fueling up on trail mix I rummaged in my pack for my head torch. The prospect of benightment didn't concern me in the slightest. After the short, light nights of summer, I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the constellations as I strode along under the starlit sky, 

The torch was nowhere to be found. I realised with a sinking feeling exactly where it was - back in my camp, about 6 km away and 700 m below. Suddenly my impending benightment seemed to be a very serious predicament indeed. I had seen a small slither of moon low in the sky earlier in the evening so knew that  there would be no reprieve from a full moon; my error would not go unpunished. Less than an hour of usable twilight was the most I could expect before true darkness set in. I looked around and took stock of my situation. If you were to hand me a map of Scotland and ask me to point out the place in which I would least like to find myself alone, in the dark, without a torch, the place in which I now found myself would be a strong contender.  I was deep in the wilderness, at least 15 km from the nearest road in every direction.

It was clear that I had to move fast, to get down off the summit, traverse across to Coire nan Dearcag, then climb up and over the east ridge of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan to start the descent into Glen Affric.  The route would be on unfamiliar, trackless terrain, but I had prospected the initial section of the route carefully on the way out. I would make the coire before light faded completely. Once in the coire I knew that the east ridge would be silhouetted above me and I knew exactly where I had to cross it, on the left side of the third top. Once on the other side I may be lucky enough to pick up the stalkers' path. I hoped that I would see the light of the remote Alltbeithe Youth Hostel and that this would give me something to aim for. I made haste.

Campspot with Beinn Fhada beyond
It was very dark indeed as I began to scramble up from the coire floor to the ridge. I felt my eyes bulging open, as if by opening my eyes as wide as possible I could actually let more light in. I had Tam the dog on his lead a few feet ahead of me. It was possible to pick his body out of the surrounding gloom, thus providing a useful gauge of the aspect of the terrain. My plan had been to push on until I could see no more and then assess the situation. I had a mobile phone but was knew that using it would kill my night vision for at least 10 minutes. I wanted to save the battery in case I needed its feeble light during the intricate micro navigation that would be required to locate my camp.

The light of the hostel was not apparent on the initial descent from the ridge but the outline of Mullach Fraoch Coire on the other side of the glen provided a guide as to the correct bearing. Hitting some steep ground made me realise that I had to be exceedingly careful, I couldn't make a single step without being very sure that there was something to step onto. Darkness could hide anything from a tiny divot to a leg-breaking cleft or the edge of a cliff. I resorted to tapping the ground before me like a blind man to verify its solidity, even shuffling on my rear at times. As I weaved to and fro in search of an easy route I dreaded finding myself stuck on a crag with no option but to put on my coat and hunker down to pass an unpleasant night, waiting for the dawn. 

The lights of the hostel came into view, lending me great cheer and giving me something to aim for. The terrain hid them on a few further occasions and each time I fervently hoped that the guests had not retired for the evening, depriving me of my beacon. I blinked, trying to interpret a tall, totem pole-like object a few feet in front. I realised that it was part of the fence that encloses the burn above the hostel. Its purpose is to keep the deer from eating the young birch that are doing their best to replace those that originally gave the burn - and the hostel - its name, Alltbeithe. This provided me with a handrail with which I was able to feel my way down the slope. When the wire ran out I glanced above to where an embarrassment of stars and the milky way peeped between shifting cloud. The lights of the hostel were now close and the angle of the slope had eased off considerably. The worst of it was over. I decided to use my mobile phone display to negotiate my way back to the tent. The puny light did little more than illuminate the ground on which I stood but this was a tremendous improvement. With its aid I picked up the track and made straight for my campsite. I was practically standing on my tent before I could see it. I have never been so glad to see a tent in my life. The time was just before 2245 hrs. I had been on the hill for just under five hours but was was completely frazzled after concentrating so hard. I stretched in my tent with a brew, deeply satisfied at having successfully extricated myself from what could all too easily have turned into a right old pickle.

A'Chralaig and the ridge connecting it with Mullach Fraoch Coire

On waking next morning to the sound of rain I opened the flap to inspect the day. On seeing that a thick swarm of midges milled outside, waiting for me, I decided to return to sleep and didn't wake until after 1000 hrs by which time the sun was shining, a light breeze had dispersed the midges and all was well. I walked out over Mullach Fraoch Coire and A'Chralaig in beautiful conditions to round off what had been a splendid - and unexpectedly exciting - weekend amid the high peaks of Affric and Kintail.

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Anonymous Fraser said...

Had a bum clencher myself recently in the Cairngorms. Always fun to look back on though. Half pleased with yourself for coping, half berating your stupidity. ;)

6 September 2011 at 22:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, could have been one very cold night out in the open. Or worse, if you had tripped or come unexpectedly to a craggy bit. Good for you remembering enough of the lay of the land and the route to find your way back in the dark.

As I was reading this my eyes drifted over to a pile of stuff on edge of my desk and there on the top of this guddle is - no, was - my headtorch. Goodness knows why it was there! It's now back in the proper place in the top pocket of my rucksack.

6 September 2011 at 22:39  
Anonymous Zed said...

Good story. As expected after a decent cock up. Will you be getting a yellow tent?

6 September 2011 at 23:40  
Anonymous Alistair said...

Great stuff! I recognised the bulging eyes syndrome! It's days like that stick in the memory.

7 September 2011 at 10:28  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Glad my incompetence has provided some amusement for others! Fraser - I enjoyed your Loch A'an trip report after following the link from Hendrik's 'Week in Review'. Lightweight shelter failure stories are always a favourite of mine.

7 September 2011 at 10:44  
Anonymous Fraser said...

To be fair, my problem was user error, not the Contrail's fault. I pushed it beyond it's design parameters and it failed.

7 September 2011 at 12:12  
Blogger blueskyscotland said...

Its Days(or Nights) like that one that really stick in the mind long after the easy hill walks are forgotten. Good to have your dog along for a bit of company as well.

8 September 2011 at 11:04  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

The dog really was a huge help. I'll never grudge carrying his dog bed again!

I didn't waymark the tent but did leave a bowl of dog food in the porch which may have had the same effect.

8 September 2011 at 14:21  
Blogger Martin Rye said...

Good result getting of the hill and back to the tent. All is well that ends well.

8 September 2011 at 22:11  
Blogger Jo Schaffer said...

Beautiful place. Was just in Scotland this summer.

15 September 2011 at 21:41  

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