Return by Packraft – Glen Affric 2
As it would for many across the country, it felt like a very long time in a small one bed city centre flat with no garden. Getting back to the hills for the first time in 112 days was something I had spent many, many hours day dreaming about. Clearly by no means was I the only one that missed the “active normality” through the lockdown, and in the grand scheme of things I count myself relatively lucky, but what an inconvenience!
(Update 1: I started drafting this into week two of the Aberdeen City lockdown, which was easily been worse than the initial lockdown seeing everyone else enjoying some epic sunrises, inversions and general excellent weather. I then got side tracked by life for 3 months, including buying our first gaff and moving from city to the shire, so only just finding the time to get it finished and uploaded onto the mothership).
(Update 2: all in accordance with restrictions at the time of walking).
It was mid-July 2020 and lockdown had been eased the week earlier, but in an attempt to avoid the rush I had added an extra 7 days to my wait, which in hindsight with international travel banned / limited it made little difference on how busy it was.
The weather didn’t really have its normal influence – I was pretty desperate so we would be going out nearly regardless.
Callum and I arrived at in Glen Affric on the Friday evening and planned for a peaceful camp on the shore of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin before tackling the Glen Affric 5 (Toll Creagach & Tom a’ Choinich then along to the Carn Eighe 3). We would get a high camp with a perfect sunrise followed by a gentle walk down to Loch Affric and then add some more adventure by packrafting our way back to the start point.
As with all my good plans – they often don’t go to plan, but I’d implore you to keep reading because as I will conclude, this trip will still be filed in the “success” folder.
Upon arrival all viable spaces to pitch a couple of small tents were pre-occupied and the distant pounding bass from someone’s speaker didn’t encourage us to explore any further. We chose to settle with the less than ideal condition pitch of right next to the car (my least favourite thing – this is where a camper van would be ideal!).
It didn’t take me long to get my tent up, nor did Callum, but it also didn’t take long for the swarms of midges to smell blood and start their long, uninterrupted and free buffet.
In those 112 days, or even longer since my last “tent trip”, my skills of only taking the essentials into the tent has been obliterated, much like the horrible midges I was smashing over every inch of exposed skin.
With the air mat blown up and sleeping bag laid out, my 1-man tent felt even less roomie, particularly when I was surrounded by a packraft, giant overnight rucksack and the “bag with goodies and fresh clothes and snacks for finishing”. I knew I would have to gamble, repack, get my stuff back into the car and brush my teeth – it was unavoidable.
After that palaver I got back into the tent where there were thousands of midges gathered at either end of the tent as if they were in a boxing ring ready to compete and delighted to see I had managed to drag in another couple of thousands of their pals – certainly no social distancing from these monsters.
It was roasting, I was lying there sweating half dressed in a sleeping bag chosen to provide enough warmth at 3,000ft – I decided to admit defeat – there is only so much clapping and squashing one can do, and it most certainly isn’t enough to avoid the inevitable.
Feeling annoyed and exhausted I went to sleep hoping that Saturday would offer something better.
Once awake we packed away, munched some breakfast in the car and set off, intent on walking quick enough to avoid the midges who had awaken with the same appetite as the night prior.
Going for 5 minutes and time to get the waterproofs on
Tom a’Choinich (far left) – general idea of the weather
It was great to be walking again, but I was wishing for a lighter bag and that I had ate less pizza over the last few months… I daftly did not consider losing my daily 22km cycle commute would do too much to my fitness. How wrong was I?!
The direct route up Toll Creagach was difficult and lung bursting, but never has feeling so uncomfortable, felt equally so good! I really missed being hunched over, leaning on walking poles fighting to catch my breath whilst simultaneously being too hot and too cold from the sweat – perfect…
The first 200m from the path was the hardest, and we were very hopeful once we were in line with Beinn Eun the going would get much easier to the summit.
It never looks as steep in photos!
Once at the height of Beinn Eun the gradient thankfully eased up, but almost inevitably the wind picked up to the “not really able to speak to one and other miles per hour”. If only there was this wind the night prior, then I would maybe have been less red and blotchy.
From the 650m to the summit at 1054m the wind and rain got progressively worse, as did my motivation for any form of high camp.
It’s arguably easier when you’re on your own, in the sense that you have a thought, you weigh up the pros and cons and then make a decision, but in a pair you’re often second guessing what the other person thinks.
By the time we reached the summit the decision was very easily reached. So cold and wet that I was unable to get my own waterproof jacket off to get on some more layers – the high camp was abandoned before we even really got close.
Damp and miserable we hunkered down behind the wind breaker and got some food in, in the hope this would lift spirits (and reduce the weight we were carrying!). This was my 182nd Munro so I now had 100 left. It was all quite grim and if I hadn’t been so close to double figures, I would have been tempted to patch Tom a’ Choinich and just head down to the glen.
Thankfully we managed to muster up the mental strength, took a bearing and headed towards Bealach Toll Easa.
Once out of the cloud
Looking across to the Mullardoch Munros (one heck of a forgettable night up there!).
Reaching Tom a’ Choinich felt like quite a milestone to finally break past the 100 remaining mark and the weather very briefly offered a glimpse of improving. Even looking back towards Toll Creagach the summit was now out of the clouds which had covered the top 200m or so when we were there, only 30 minutes earlier.
A cloud free Toll Creagach
We had considered taking the return route to the bealach and down but having seen a big squad of lads coming up the south-east shoulder we decided we would take that ridge.
As we had originally planned to be continuing high and west for some miles, I hadn’t done a great deal of researching into such an early bail out option. I always have something up my sleeve for a 50-75% bail out, but this was early doors.
Heading down the ridge
The route down Creag na h-Inghinn was quite pleasant and atmospheric, I can’t remember which direction Walk Highlands recommends if you were just doing the two, but I liked coming down this way – the views seemed excellent.
By the time we reached the fords and Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh, I was quite tempted for another night somewhere low in the glen, but as Callum rightly pointed out another night being destroyed by midges could be somewhat soul destroying. Plus, it was still early enough to make it back at a very reasonable time, which would free up all of the Sunday.
After a bit of discussion, it seemed like a good compromise would be to extend the walk south towards Affric Lodge and then make the use of the packraft we had carried to packraft back towards the car.
Although not as far as we had original planned to need the packraft, it would still be the longest distance this remote – still worth the effort and really added to the sense of adventure.
The crossing of Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh even at the fords was slightly challenging, and any worse would likely be impassable. Once across the was a freshly laid path just west of Am Meallan which would lead directly to the fortified Affric Lodge.
The “nice” path, at least for walking on
Glen Affric is beautiful!
When we reached Affric Lodge I wanted to head slightly further west to allow for a longer packraft back to the car. Looking at the map, heading across the footbridge and joining onto the Affric-Kintail Way for a kilometre or so would have been perfect, if not for the CCTV, passive aggressive warnings, fences and general “I’m richer than you, so stay off my land, peasant” patter – not new information as pre-trip research indicated this would be an issue, although it wasn’t one that I had planned on meeting, as originally we had planned to enter at the very western end of the Loch and sail under their fortified bridge.
This would now rank second, only behind the Strathfarrar access restrictions (untouchable!), in terms of unnecessary restrictions to feed some megalomaniacs ego. Obviously, that’s only my opinion, and I am sure they have very worthy reasons for fortifying a path. [Still plotting an alternative into the Strathfarrar Munros – not a chance in hell I’m ringing a bell to be bestowed the great honour of walking in “their hills”].
Not quite sure how far along the north side of Loch Affric the ‘military defence’ fencing ran, and scared in case they had also planted land mines to ensure no invasion of their privacy, we headed east and found a reasonably acceptable entry point just beyond the fencing – even then it felt like they may release the dogs, giving off James Bond villain vibes.
Our entry point – footbridge we wanted to cross in the distance
We slowly paddled back towards the east end of Loch Affric, with the plan to come out just before the rapids and portage the packraft and kit a small distance through the car park and down the very west end of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin.
The wind was at our back, so it required hardly any effort and we were speeding along quicker than I really wanted to.
The portage was slightly longer than I had envisage in my head and as Callum had packed the kitchen sink (as normal ) it required a few stop / starts, re-gripping of handles and swapping positions to get down through the car park. We also got a few peculiar looks.
Myself having a quick rest before the final carry
Once back on the water we made a quick detour back towards the small waterfalls against the flow of water to get some views – insanely peaceful and epically beautiful!
It had the potential to be deemed as a bit of a failed trip, because we didn’t get close to the hills we initially planned.
As we were paddling back towards Loch Affric it instantly felt like exactly what I had spent months waiting for. It wasn’t the number of hills that mattered, or the views, or the perfect weather, or the summit camps. It was just great to be back doing something which felt normal for me (and probably ludicrously unnormal for 95% of the population!).
On the plus side another visit to Loch Affric awaits for the Carn Eighe 3.
Thanks for reading
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