Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hillwalking in the Highlands

Over Memorial Day weekend, I had the opportunity to hike one of the most beautiful and challenging ridges in Scotland, Aonach Eagach, and ascend the highest peak in the UK, Ben Nevis, by the road less traveled.  Here's how we did it.

On Saturday morning at 6am, we drove from Dundee (near Edinburgh) to Glen Coe in the Western Highlands, arriving about 9:30am.   We parked at Loch Achtriochtan and began the 3000 foot ascent of Meal Dearg.  Along the way we had 60 mph winds and intermittent pouring rain.   The real fun began as walked the saw-tooth ridge up and down a narrow track of slick, moss covered rock with 3000 feet of exposure on either side.

We used 60 meters of 8mm rope with bowlines on a bight tied to each team member.    The belay technique was simple - putting a rock between each climber and the cliff as each team-member traversed the tricky parts.

It snowed, melted, and rained creating a thin slippery sheen on the rock.   The temperature was just below freezing and the winds varied between 30mph and 60mph.  We successfully traversed to the peak of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.

The descent from the ridge to Glen Coe required particularly delicate footwork  - a loose, steep, wet scree slope (Clachaig gully) that from below looks impossible to descend.   An extraordinary experience!

At the end of our day, we retreated to the pub for a pint of rehydration (I ordered a Deuchars IPA) .   The pub had two sections - an open boisterous public bar and the "snug" for  those desiring quieter conversation.   We retired to the snug to reflect on our day and plan our next ascent.

From Glen Coe, we drove to Fort William at the south end of the Great Glen near Loch Ness.   I was shown the canal with the giant cat door that allows Nessie to travel to and from the sea (local humor).   We stayed overnight at the Farr Cottage hostel, a popular base for many outdoor activities.   Our bunk room had all the characteristics we needed - warm, dry, quiet, clean, and horizontal surfaces.  

We woke at 6am, which is not hard since Scotland has 19 hour days this time of year (sunrise at 3am and sunset at 11pm) and headed to a giant waterfall on the south side of Ben Nevis.   There is no trail, we just followed the right side of the waterway for 2000 feet, then used a compass and map to climb a 2000 foot boulder field.   What made it most interesting was 60 mph winds, gusting to 70 mph along with freezing rain, sleet, snow, and ice chucks that pelted against our skin like buckshot.   To get a sense of what it is like to hike in 70 mph winds, if you extend your arms and legs to create a sail, your body literally flies up the mountain.   Each time I jumped, I would find myself 10 feet higher.

The last 1000 feet was true winter hiking conditions with a foot of snow covering the boulder field, making the footing a bit tricky.   At last the slope began to flatten and we arrived at the summit, the highest point in the UK.   On the summit, the wind was a bit less, around 50mph, the temperature was in the teens, and blowing ice chunks pelted our faces.   My platypus water reservoir froze solid.  

We descended the "tourist path" which is a wide, well maintained trail about 4 miles long.  We slid down snow covered slopes, faces against the wind, and stressed our knees and quadriceps as we carefully navigated the wet rocks down 4000 feet to the car.    The conditions along the hike had made eating quite challenging, so we  ate our lunches in the car and drove back to Dundee.

Frank Sullivan, who organized the trip, then drove me to Edinburgh airport.   Along the way, we stopped in a fabulous vegetarian restaurant, Henderson's, and I had a delightful meal of vegan haggis made with lentils, kidney beans, pinhead oats, herbs and spaces creating a full flavored haggis topped with traditional clapshot (potatoes and turnips) and a red onion gravy.

A truly magnificent experience and I want to thank Frank, his brothers (Joseph, Andrew, and John), Chris Dibben and Shaun Treweek, for making it all possible.

Here's my advice for hiking in the Highlands

1.   From my limited experience, it seems that moisture and wind management rather than temperature concerns should drive your clothing decisions.    Wearing a single layer of insulation (an Arcteryx Phase AR top and Rho LT bottoms), I was consistently warm as long as every inch of my body was covered in Gortex.

2.   Climbing on wet, mossy rock requires skill and sticky boots.   The Treksta Gortex boots I wore were perfect.   The weather is completely unpredictable - during the course of our Saturday hike we went from Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter weather each hour.   During our Ben Nevis hike we had full winter conditions.   I would describe the weather in Scotland as 1/3 perfect, 1/3 extreme, and 1/3 in between.

3.  Trails are not always well marked.   A compass and map are extremely helpful, especially given the fog, mist, rain, and white out conditions.

4.  The mountains in Scotland may not be that high (Ben Nevis is 4400 feet high) but they are steep.   Expect significant mileage uphill and downhill that can strain your knees and quadriceps.

5.  Because of their steepness, the taller mountains in Scotland (called the Munros) often have significant exposure.   Be very careful not to wander off an edge in the mist or slip over a cliff as you scramble over wet rock.   Using a rope to protect climbs on  wet, mossy rock is a good idea.

What a weekend.  Rain, ice, and snow.  Gale force winds.  20 miles of steep wet rock.   Priceless!


Will snow said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. Well, except for the weather. Seriously - come to Carmel, we'll hike the local hills and enjoy a nice trip to the local wineries - bernardus and more are just down the street. Hills are only 1400-1800 ft, but weather is more like 60's and 70's, sunny, gorgeous. And when you get to the top, you can see the ocean (or we can drive there :)

Sheldon Devine said...

nice tips.....would make sure to make a note when I do get a chance to make the trip...Thanks

Frank Sullivan said...

As another member of the weekend climbing party I have two other observations: Scotland doesn't always suffer horizontal freezing rain and JH is the kind of guy who makes any expedition conditions enjoyable.