the muse and the rat

Thu, Oct 11, 2012

It's been a while since I've been able to get up the hill but with the weather set fair(ish) and to improve through the day, last Saturday I jumped in the car and drove the quiet roads to Achnashellach intent on climbing a hill I've been passing every time I go to Inverness. Fuar Tholl, the 'cold hole'. It's a shade under Munro height and with the forecast promising snow showers above 800m I was looking forward to a good day out. It's quite an interesting place Achnashellach. When you drive through you catch a glimpse of the lodge amongst the trees and that's about it but on the forestry track there are houses dotted among the forest and along the railway line and it's not as small you imagine. A cold north west wind blew showers down from Coire Lair but the autumnal colours kept my spirits up on the well made path up into the hills with Fuar Tholl bursting into view at the edge of the plantation.

Fuar Tholl from the forest


The longer I'm off the hills the more the rat gnaws and eventually, no matter what the weather I'll head out to feed it. Feeding the rat is a great phrase coined by the mountaineer Mo Anthoine when he described his need for adventure as a rat which gnawed away at him and indeed I knew the rat for years as a climber. I'd climb anything in any weather. Winter climbing was the best. The worse the weather the better the experience I always said and practiced. In fact, another writer comes to mind when remembering past exploits in the form of Robert MacFarlane's Mountains of the Mind. Where the valley turns out of view and the imagination is free to explore what might be there. Such is winter climbing when the route is different every time and the blowing cloud and spindrift allow the rat and the imagination to work together to create a truly memorable day.

Looking up Coire Lair from the crossing point to Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor

Now the river Lair can be impassable in spate and the path just happens to stop at its edge and continue on the other side with no sign of a bridge so it was with some relief I reached the crossing which was still high after days of rain but was passable. Just not with dry feet. These mountains are solid rock with a thin covering of soil and heather to preserve their modesty but everywhere you look their musculature bursts out of the landscape, shouting and roaring at each other across the coires, quite literally today with the rut getting into full swing. The lack of soil means heavy rain runs off quickly and you get bursts of floods coming down from the tops which can make even the smallest burn a raging torrent capable of sweeping you away. But they tend not to last as long as elsewhere and subside enough to let you past. This was the river Lair and off with the shoes and socks for a barefoot knee deep crossing.

Getting ready for a knee deep crossing of the river Lair

The path on the other side is just as well made as the main stalkers path as you climb high above Coire Lair, the twin coire of Coire Fionnarigh on the other side of Fuar Tholl. These two coires are fantastically wild 'sanctuaries' you don't know exist as you have to climb up to them and they're flanked by seriously impressive mountains. The kind of mountains where you want to know what you're doing if you're wandering around in the clag. It's also superlative backpacking country with a superb network of stalkers' paths and endless route permutations to take in ascents along the way. The route I was aiming for was an alternative ascent to the left of the Mainreachan buttress. The main path goes up to the bealach with Sgorr Ruadh but you can find a route up the most south easterly of the small coires that bite into the cliffs. So where the path crosses a burn I contoured round into the coires and up the steep wet grass into the scree gully and popped out on the ridge in a biting wind a short distance west of the summit.

Maol Cheann Dearg from Fuar Tholl

It was blowing cold sleety rain and occasional snow showers and a solitary raven croaked from the mist drifting across the crags. A small group of ptarmigan in their white plumage sped across the flat grass and I spotted a snow bunting keeping an eye on me from a distance. The colours were muted autumnal and I could feel the muse stir, now that the rat was quiet. The cares of the world were dropping away as they do up here and the words of quote Dorothea Brande came to mind; 'the artistic temperament is usually perfectly satisfied to exercise itself in reverie and amuse itself in solitude'.

Looking over the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor to Beinn Eighe from Fuar Tholl

I sat for 50mins at the top, ensconced behind the sheltering walls round the blasted and broken trig point while the muse took me back ten, twenty, almost thirty years. I listened to a tune on the phone that's been with me since I started walking and realised that next year I'll have been walking, cycling, mountaineering, climbing, stravaiging and courting the rat for thirty years. I felt at peace in this wild landscape.

On the way down to the bealach I toyed with the idea of heading over Sgorr Ruadh and back down from the head of Coire Lair but the clag was getting worse and the rain was cold and heavy so instead I sat at the top of the path on a wonderfully flat rock and soaked up the atmosphere. Perhaps it's the colours at this time of year but I just feel more receptive to everything. It's as if the muse hibernates in summer (aestanates?). My reveries were interrupted by a skein of winter geese high over the tops. Probably coming in from Greenland or Iceland, taking advantage of the wind direction. It was around this time a couple of years ago they moved me to put pen to paper and write the Geese Gaiku.

Sgorr Ruadh

With the rain getting heavier and the cloud lowering I plodded off down the path back to the river. This time I tried the island crossing lower down. Easy to get onto dry shod and a short crossing from the top end to the far bank but with damp feet as the water level was just above the top of the slippy boulders. Not to worry. I spied a familiar looking sight further up the path. A cairn that looked familiar and an ancient photograph popped into my mind. The cairn looked bigger but it was unmistakeably the one I'd sat at, let me see, yes, twenty six years ago as a teenager. Long hair, enormous sideburns and tweed breeches, I'd stood here all those years ago and felt completely alive in a snow laden, frozen arctic wind that had dumped a load of snow on the tops. The day before I'd walked up Coire Lair and followed my nose straight up the west face of Beinn Liath Mhor in a blizzard and I can still remember teetering on loose blocks as the wind and snow threatened to blow me off the iced up rocks. But you don't consider danger when you're eighteen. It's all a big adventure.

I walked back down the path towards Achnashellach, through the burning autumnal colours and the stags roaring and the muse awaking from her summer slumber. As for the rat? He was nowhere to be seen. Fed and watered, he'd crept back to his hidey hole. But thanks for keeping me sane Ratty and I sensed the presence of a wild eyed teenager watching over me as I entered the trees and the river took me back to the road.

You can see all the pics here.