sun sea and high camping in the blackmount

Mon, Apr 12, 2010

Winter over, 20c forecast and light winds, I jumped on the ferry on Friday afternoon and drove across to Fort William and down the road to Bridge of Orchy, hung a right and pootled along the single track road to Inveroran, aiming for my third last Munro, Stob a’Choire Odhair. Funny that. I’ve been up Stob Ghabhar at least three times but I don’t remember ever having been up its smaller neighbour. I remember one memorable traverse from the White Corries ski centre, along the Blackmount ridge at the end of winter in ‘89, meeting Rab the stalker on the way down Stob Ghabhar and having dinner with Rab and Jean at Clashgour, followed by a lift in their landrover to Bridge of Orchy for a night in the pub. They called Clashgour The Land of Milk and Honey and what a place it was. Superbly isolated near the headwaters of the Dochard glen, peering into remote mountains at the head of Glen Kinglass. I remember one night there, watching the picture on their wee telly turn all sorts of colours and shapes, twisting, dimming, turning green then purple then filling the screen, only to crumple back to a geometrical mess of psychedelic shapes. All this as the generator was playing up round the back, sending the voltage haywire.

Evening sunlight to the west along Abhainn Shira

This evening I was bound for somewhere, anywhere, up in the hills with the tent. As I drove past the nice camping spot by the burn at Inveroran I spotted the now commonplace collection of cars, deckchairs and party tents and fearing another Kingshouse Episode I drove on to the car park, shouldered the sack and headed for the hills. With a couple of hours before dark I didn’t care where I would end up. I passed spot after spot of nice tent spots along the Abhainn Shira, then a nice one next to the GUMC hut, then another and another until it was 8pm and experience was pushing me on to the track junction at 400m on the Allt Toaig. You can usually find a flat spot at a biggish stream junction and there was indeed. I tiny wee flat place. Just enough for the Akto and no more. But that’s what’s great about walking until you’re tired and hungry. The smallest site looks palatial.

Wild camp at 400m

I boiled up the Lloyd Grossman soup (scrumptious. Heavy but a treat) and the freeze dried Beef Curry (superb!) and settled down for the night as the stars popped out above the other Aonach Eagach on Stob Ghabhar. It really was the only flat spot for miles and it had a bit of a hole in it so I had to position the tent such that there was a raised but of ground underneath me, which meant the front of the pole was a couple of inches lower than the rear and combined with the raised dais in the middle, it was as I was being offered up as a sacrifice to the Gods of Condensation. It was a mild night to say the least. Not much wind and my face squeezed against the fabric. Wet? Quite! I should just have bivvied!

8am next morning, after porridge and sultanas, banana and horlicks (yum) I was heading up the steep stalkers path. All around, snowfields reflected the growing sun and I was soon melting in the heat although once on the plateau the going was wonderfully free and easy.

Bidean nam Bian from Stob aChoire Odhair

An hour after leaving the tent (is that possible? 545m of ascent and a Km and a bit. Those exercises must be helping!) I was on the summit. A cold 20-30mph breeze sent me scurrying into a sunny nook from where I contemplated the vastness of Rannoch Moor:

Rannoch Moor from Stob aChoire Odhair

and the mighty east face of Stob Ghabhar, where once Dawn and I had watched an eagle shoot up the other side of the Aonach Eagach just as we reached the crest:

Stob Ghabhar from Stob aChoire Odhair

I spent an hour on the summit, wandering around, soaking up the sun and views and I’m ashamed to say I even Facebooked the rellies with a pic and vid. They prolly thought I was quite mad being at over 3000ft at 9 in the morning and surfing the ‘net to boot! Isn’t it amazing how technology has moved on? I remember long winter nights in the Force 10, camped in lonely glens where the tiny radio emitted nothing much other than static with the ghostly voices on Russian radio stations rising and falling, embedded in the white noise. It was the sound of remoteness. Complete isolation from civilisation. As the snow covered the tracks back and the wind shook the strong fabric and rattled the sturdy A-poles, you really had the feeling you were at the edge of the world. I remember once, camped at Loch Laggan a long time ago. The snow was half way up the tent sides and it was blowing a gale. A couple of us has been exposed to a storm and whiteout on Carn Liath and now we were lying in the tent listening to the wee radio play its static tune when all of a sudden a soft Irish lilt came out of the ether. “ssssssss…this is Radio Dublin with the wea….ssssss….er……ssssssssss….tonight will..sssss….be………very cold!” And it was!

These days it’s possible to sit at 3000ft in the middle of nowhere and surf the internet. Is there any wilderness left in the UK? It’s a bit like walking down the high street with your eyes shut and ears closed that you might not notice the TV shops, the mobile phone shops, the people, the noise, the bustle. They’re all there but you’re trying to ignore them. Wilderness walking in the UK is becoming a bit like that. You may not have an internet enabled phone with you but the internet is there, in the wilderness with you. It’s just that you don’t have the gizmo with you to plug into it. Do that and the wilderness vanishes in the blink of a digital eye. Wilderness really is a state of mind, easily destroyed by the very act of measurement.

It used to be that remote places inspired people. Friends would come along for the slide show after your trip into the wilds. You’d take pictures and have to wait a few weeks to get them back from the developer. You’d need clunky equipment to share what you’d seen and it all seemed worthy of quiet reverence from your friends. Now you can Tweet and Facebook instantly from the remotest spot. Wilderness is just another commodity to be traded on the social networks. Familiarity breeds contempt they say. How will it be possible to preserve the idea of wilderness as sacrosanct saviour of lives led at the speed of electrons when it’s carved up and distributed on the social networks, in real time. It’ll become as commonplace as that high street. As I sat and gazed out across the bottomless bogs of Rannoch Moor, a ptarmigan shot past, its wings holding the last of the winter white and I imagined it ploughing through the billions of conversations, tweets, facebooks, youtubes, that fly through the air with it. Will they bring it down one day? Will the wild places become so familiar to the world that contempt will indeed replace the awestruck inspiration of the early pioneers such as John Muir? Will the wheel turn full circle from wide eyed wonderment to a digital grave as the matrix craves its next hit?

But it was hard to dwell on such things with the sun beating down, a spring in my step and in the air, for indeed this harshest of winters was over. I bounded down the path back to the tent, packed up and headed for the coast but not before passing 30 walkers on their way up to the tops. I wondered how many would be carrying their digital shovels, mining the land for the social networks.

Duncan Ban MacIntyres birthplace

I dumped the sack at the car and walked up the track to Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s birthplace. The Shakespeare of the North you could call him. He penned one of the most famous Gaelic poems ever written, Moladh Beinn Dorain (In Praise of Beinn Dorain) and the picture above is where he was born, looking across to Beinn Dorain. I have a couple of projects on the go at the moment, to translate Moladh Beinn Dorain and Oran na Comhachaig (The Owl’s Song), a fantastic 16th century Gaelic poem about a hunter who retires to the head of Loch Treig. They’re already translated of course but I love working through the ancient Gaelic and drawing my own interpretations from the wonderful verse.

As soon as I got a mobile signal on the road back I phoned up CalMac and transferred to the earlier ferry but left enough time to laze on the beach near Arisaig on the way back. Golden sands, clear blue sea and sky and a tangle of islands floating in the west:

Rum and Eigg from Arisaig beach

I love journeys that start and finish on ferries. Love watching the birds and seals and occasional dolphin or whale or basking shark. It’s such as wonderful way to travel. I settled down at what appeared to be the front of the boat. Being a RoRo (rollon-rolloff) it’s sometimes not obvious which way the captain will go. I was joined by a myriad of tourists snapping away, excited at their holiday plans, the air full of chatter, red faces from the weekend sun and a babble of different languages. The ferry pulled out of Mallaig harbour and turned though 180 degrees. We were now at the back of the boat, which sent the tourists running for the other end and I was left alone, quiet and content to watch the mainland become smaller and smaller and the ochre mountains of Knoydart rear out of a blue blue sea. A fitting end to a wonderful trip.

You can see all the pics here.

comments powered by Disqus