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Walking in the Mamores: three Munros in the mist (second post)

I'm woken by a particularly loud owl hoot close by.  "HOOO.  HER-HOOO".  And again.  And again.  Becoming more distant.  I lie listening to the dawn chorus.  There are voices in it that we don't get at home.  It's a bit after five in the morning and I feel I've slept well.  Content.  Lovely down sleeping bag and a sleeping mat.  Gosh camping can be a lot more easy than when I was a kid.

I wrote yesterday on getting ready for this trip.  Now I'm very much here and I think about the day ahead.  I eat a banana and an apple.  My initial plan had been to drive further along Glen Nevis to Achriabhach.  Then a longish walk, slogging up the East bank of Allt Coire a Mhusgain to the ridge.  Then turn West to the first Munro, Stob Ban.  I'll be starting almost at sea level.  Nearly 1,000 metres to climb.  1 to 1½ minutes for 10 metres makes 100 to 150 minutes walking.  Depends on how much snow there is and how much I'm having to walk through it rather than on it.  About four kilometres.  Then a drop down, before climbing up again to the second Munro and most Westerly of the Mamores, Mullach nan Coirean.  Right now, snug still in my sleeping bag, early, no rain, I wonder about detouring first of all up a third Munro, Sgurr a' Mhaim.  Mmm ... Time to get moving.

... and a little later, washed, coffee, eating muesli.  The muesli bowl is a wildly painted one, given to me years ago by dear Laura, my step-daughter.  And on the psychedelic painting she has put just one word in large gold capitals "YES!".  I'm reminded of those brief, lovely, e.e. cummings lines that I last quoted to my Mum ... the second verse of "love is a place":

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skilfully curled)
all worlds


... and now I'm back!  Quite a long day.  Nearly 9 hours walking, much of it through snow.  Tired.  A bit "battered".  So I did start with the extra Munro, Sgurr a' Mhaim, 1099 metres.  The last three or four hundred metres of the climb in increasingly thick mist.  Walking up through the snow, it became hard to see much at all in the whiteness.  I spooked myself by suddenly noticing that the ridge I was on had narrowed.  The sharp drop on my left was only a few feet away and I hadn't seen it - the snow on the ground and mist in the air almost merging seamlessly with each other.  Good to be reasonably competent with a compass.  That, the map, and the ground sloping upwards were pretty much all I could see for directions.  I reached the first peak and had then decided to come off the ridge to the South West - a "chicken run" to avoid "The Devil's Ridge", described by my guide book as a "narrow arrete ... near the lowest point there are two short, exposed and slightly awkward sections where some might welcome the security of a rope, particularly in winter."  I've done my reading.  Apparently an experienced walker came off here a couple of years ago and was killed.  There's no way I fancy this ... thick mist, snowy holds, no serious rock climbing experience, alone, no chance of a rope.  Hence the "chicken run".  This turns into both the low and the high spot of the walk.  Initially I feel increasingly unhappy with the slippery descent off the ridge over boulders and snow with poor visibility and an occasional glimpse of steep drops.  It's easy to lose my footing, which I do several times.  I'm not enjoying it!  Eventually I give up on walking poles and get out my ice axe.  I did a two day winter skills training a while ago, but I've never used an ice axe "for real" before.  However the snow slopes have become too steep and I risk skidding and tumbling down, out of control.  I practise sliding very slightly and check I can stop myself with the axe.  I can.  I try a little more bravely.  Good again.  Happy thought.  I can lose hundreds of feet in height painlessly.  I slither/toboggan down the snow slope, braking with the ice axe and occasionally the heel of a boot.  Fantastic.  It works beautifully.  Exhilarating and very effective.  I love it! 

Down out of the mist and onto grass.  Then climb to the col and West steeply up to the second peak, Stob Ban.  Again, at a height of maybe 750 metres, I meet the snowline and disappear into mist.  Now it becomes fairly surreal.  Over two hours walking in a strange, white world.  Poor visibility.  Cliffs.  The ridge quite narrow in places.  There has been fairly continuous snow or, further down, light rain all day.  Funny that change from rain to sleet to snow.  I remember thinking that the weighty, more vertical fall of sleet (in contrast to rain) reminds me of how wood pigeons fly - so much more "heavy shouldered" and direct than most other birds.  I don't see another person all day, but up here I'm fortunate to find the tracks of someone else.  I can see from the snow that they're wearing crampons and using an iceaxe.  As I navigate my way, I become increasingly comfortable with the choices indicated by the footprints already made ahead of me.  I know I have to be cautious, but it does feel a bit like having two heads rather than just one.

Eventually a long tiring time later I come down off the North Eastern ridge of Mullach nan Coirean - the third Munro - and emerge into clear daylight again.  So strange the change to green and clarity from the white blanket world above.  High up it's beautiful but pitiless - in the sense of simply having no pity.  If I'd slipped or injured myself the mountains are as neutral as if I'd had an ecstatic experience.  They simply "are".  I am wiser about this than I was a year ago in Glen Affric.  I asked for and was given a personal location beacon (PLB) for Christmas  - if I'm in one piece enough to hit the button, the PLB will broadcast via the global positioning satellites, alerting emergency services and letting them know my position for at least 24 hours.  Good feeling to have this back up.

Now the long, increasingly boggy trudge down to the woods of Glen Nevis.  Tired.  Accidents are most common coming down, rather than going up.  I slip and crash down a few times.  I'm so glad I do strengthening exercises.  On one particularly crunching fall, it feels like the impact on my left elbow drives my shoulder up to my ear.  Pain, but the muscles seem to take the shock really well. 

I'm soaked and tired and dubious about tomorrow.  I'd planned to walk the two most Easterly Munros in the range.  The forecast though suggests that the cloud will be down even lower.  Nope.  Long solo navigation, often without a ridge or other landmark to help orientate me in the mist.  The tracks covered in snow.  A waste too.  This is a beautiful series of mountains.  Walking them in the mist is like getting a present and not being able to unwrap it.  I remember how when I asked my Mum about her happiest memories, a major one was walking on high ridges on beautiful days in the Scottish hills.  I'll head home and come back later in the year.  Good ... 

And see tomorrow's blog for a reflection on this trip.


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