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The Rushmore finale

The Rushmore finale


Postby Michael Thomson » Thu Apr 10, 2014 11:47 am

Grahams included on this walk: Ben Mor Coigach

Date walked: 05/04/2014

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The family calendar was filling up faster than an MP's bank account. A free weekend was a rare sight, but a miserable forecast certainly wasn't. The guide from MWIS was clear: north, Miss Tessmacher, north. The further north the better, but to be honest we don't fancy your chances much.

I left a little earlier than planned which was unusual and I pointed the car up the A9 which similarly odd. I imagine the A82 is sick of the sight of me. It rained constantly through the whole of Perthshire. I resisted the urge to pop into Escape Route in Pitlochry but the lure of Ralia was too much. I pulled in to be faced with an uninspiring but expensive array of sandwiches, my fond memories of this place perhaps rose tinted by joyous trips to Torridon. I sat at the window with my soup and watched as the rain eased to a steady drizzle.

On the road again and the Cairngorms slid past slowly to my right. They had rolled over, pulled their cloudy duvets over their heads and were definitely not in the mood for coming out to play. I sailed through Inverness with nary a glance but once I hit the roundabout at Tore, the chinks in the armour were beginning to show; the cloud was thinning and there were even two tiny patches of blue sky, enough to lure me onward and inspire hope. By the Glascarnoch dam, that hope was fading. When Ben More Coigach appeared above Ardmair, it was thick with cloud and my heart sank.

It's traditional for me to forget something on every trip. Much to Kirsty's dismay in holiday season, I'm not a list maker or an organised packer. Dismounting inelegantly with a numb bum at Blughasary, I wondered what would be missing from the box in the boot this time.

My plan was to follow the Postie's path round to Garbh Choireachan, but the conditions suggested I was in for a wet night and camping options would be limited. Instead I decided to head north along the land rover track, that way I could camp by the loch if the weather was poor. This turned out to be a wise decision, but not for the reason I made it.

The track ends abruptly above Loch Eadar dha Bheinn and I paused to survey the options. I got a cheery wave from a couple of chaps who were below, cutting the corner back to the track, the last of humanity for the day.

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The rain was coming in pulses down the loch. I plodded on, pausing on the beach for a cuppa.

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I decided to carry on up the ridge. I had spotted a few potential camp sites and if it all went wrong higher up I had them as a fallback option. I slowly plodded up, pausing regularly to rejoice in the magnificent geology. I found a spectacular sandstone pavement scattered with erratics at around 400m  and I had the thought that Kirsty would have loved being there, she does have a thing for good geology.

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The hillside was alive with bird calls but scanning the sky revealed nothing but a thick layer of stratus. I met a wee frog at around 600m who seemed as bemused as I was.

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As I climbed, the ridge narrowed and the cloud thinned a little, giving glimpses of the sea below.

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I carried on, up and over the pointy wee peak of Speicein Coinnich and down into the narrow bealach behind. The wind roared through the gap, no place to linger. I carried on up, the map suggested an area of flattish ground ahead. When I stepped up over the rise, it took my breath away. From a narrow rocky ridge and a sharp peak I was suddenly transported to a football field-sized plateau of flat grassland and pebbly beach. There really is nowhere like the northwest when it comes to this kind of contrast.

In my experience camping on plateaux, your  site options are either a wind blasted pitch or a boggy hole but as fortune would have it, here was a shallow dry dip with a protective grassy bump. This would do nicely. By now the mist had rolled back in and visibility was down to thirty metres or so. I pitched the tent quickly and settled in, still bemused with being camped at around 700m but feeling like I was in a farmer's field.

The mist was condensing on the fly which made me think I should check my water situation. I had a little under a litre left, not ideal. I looked for my folding bottle and realised it was item one on the forgotten list. I went for a wander to see what I could find. A small muddy puddle was the extent of the water here, I'd have to make do. I got the stove on and rustled up some chilli. There was enough for one hot drink left. I had to choose, hot choc tonight or porridge in the morning? Would I have to go cuppa-less in Coigach? I decided I would take my chances in the morning. I lay back with the hot choc and closed the tent door on the thick mist and driving drizzle.

The wee forecast widget on my phone hinted that I'd have a four hour weather window in the morning, what were the chances of it being right?

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There's a weird thing that happens when you're camping, you revert to being a bit more primeval. Your caveman brain reasserts itself. I find that my internal security system kicks in and I always sleep with one ear open. It took me a moment to come round and realise what had set the alarm bells off.

Earlier in the evening I'd played the fun game of timing the wind. There was a unique noise when a gust flew over the summit above me, WHUFF..two...three...fouBOOM and the rear panel of the tent would buck and flex when it hit. When you've left your ipod in the car you have to make your own entertainment.

What my subconscious alarm had picked up was that the noise had changed. For most of the evening it had sounded like there was a bloke outside with a bass drum, making well timed beats in time with the wind. Now it sounded like someone had unravelled a giant roll of  wrapping paper and was trying to giftwrap a present the size of a small car in a gale.

I wrestled myself back into suitable outerwear and staggered outside to investigate. The rear guyline had gone. The peg had dragged a long furrow in the soil before the guyline had given up and allowed itself to be shredded. That's what I get for using the factory standard issue. I dug out the wee wrap of dyneema from my pack and rigged up a replacement. Tying a mini-linelok on at 1am when you're half asleep is entertaining.

What was obvious was that the rain of the previous evening had stopped and the low cloud had lifted. I could see the orange sodium glow of the lights of Ullapool below.  I slumped back into my bag and dozed off with the low dull throb of a boat engine for company and higher hopes for the morning.

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That internal awareness thing did the job again, waking me with the message that the foot-end of the tent appeared to be turning pink, even though it was still 15 mins before my sunrise alarm was due to go off.

I stumbled outside to find an eerie scene. There was a strong glow just off the shoulder of Ben More Assynt, but all around my hill was a low crown of condensing cloud. It was warming up and that had a strange effect. It wasn't misty, but everything cool was quickly gathering a layer of water droplets. I tried to catch some photos, but the front element of the lens kept condensing more and more. It was like old-school soft focus when they used to smear vaseline on the lens. I keep my camera in the porch to avoid condensation issues, but this seemed to be the reverse of the normal issue. No matter how often I wiped it, it just kept coming back. What the hell, I wasn't here just for photos, I was here to make memories. Photos are there just to jog the memories, the memories themselves are always far more vivid and vibrant that any digital image. I took a few blurry shots before sticking the camera into my jacket to warm up.

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Lochan Tuath looked like a fine spot, I spotted a few options for the return trip for some climbing on the Fiddler. The Nose direct looked like an awesome route for bucket list.

The sunrise passed quickly, but gave sharp relief to what lay ahead, a huge contrast to the mist and gloom of the night before, now I had the whole ridge stretching out before me.

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I had one small issue, I had a dribble of water, but certainly not enough for my customary porridge and two cups of coffee. It would have to be hard tack, there was bound to be water eventually. I crunched my way through a packet of breakfast biscuits. The label said fruit'n'fibre but as far as I could tell the fibre was provided by sawdust and toenail clippings. I would be finding little curved crunchy things stuck in my teeth for the next two hours. It was time to get moving.

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I trotted up the ridge and over a couple of small bumps to reach the summit proper, the mist playing a game of peekaboo with me as I went. Another high level sandy shoreline passed underfoot. When I reached the summit I paused for while to absorb the view to the north. It's hard to find somewhere with so many great hills packed into such a small area; Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Cul Beag,  Suilven, Canisp, Breabag. Even the mention of their unique names lifts the spirit with hope of adventure and mystery.

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I started up the ridge towards Speicein nan Garbh-Choireachan. There was a path running low on the right hand side of the ridge, but that would obstruct the view of An Teallach to the left. The ridge proper also looked much more entertaining with rocky bumps and steps. As I paused for a breather, something moving in the sky caught my eye. From stage right, a feathered friend appeared. I watched with my jaw hanging open as an eagle soared across from the other side of the coire and looped around me. The camera would be useless, a wide-angle lens is no good for wildlife so I stood a watched him as he circled me again. As he swooped up towards the ridge again, I grabbed a snapshot so that the more eagle-eyed (ahem) could see him.

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He flew up to the summit of the ridge and perched at the very top. He sat and watched me and I stood and watched him. He was showing the way, urging me to join him. The question was would I go where eagles dare? Broadsword calling Danny boy. Damn right I would.

I worked my way up the ridge, aiming to source the most scrambling I could get. It was grade one at best, but still satisfying getting hands onto the rough rock, all the while being watched keenly by my avian companion. I reached a tricky step and watched my feet for moment. When I looked up again the eagle was gone. I scoured the sky but he was nowhere to be seen. Off to source some breakfast somewhere no doubt, which reminded me, I was parched.

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Far too quickly, the ridge came to an end and I was faced with the last rocky bump seemingly disappearing straight down into the sea.

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My plan was to drop down and pick up the Postie's path. This is so called because the postie used to have to walk to Achiltibuie with the mail. It was only in the 60s that tarmac roads became more common around here and even now it's a long looping road all the way round the mountain, so these hardy chaps had a shortcut along the coast. The descent was steep and sustained. My right knee did it's usual complaining routine as I zigged and zagged to find my way around outcrops and boulders.

Once I hit the path, with knees aching and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth I turned my mind to the most important task: how long was it going to  be before I could get a cuppa? There was a spring marked on the map a little further on and just after that I would cross the river. Onwards to water.

I had expected the postie to be a lazy bugger, but the track was rough going over rock steps, traversing over steep gorges that dropped straight into the sea and with a lot of ups and downs and a regular need for hands-on.  Not so much Postman Pat, more Postman Pat Littlejohn.

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I missed the spring entirely, due to having to pay close attention to what I was doing. The trail has occasional markers, but they're well spaced out and routefinding was harder than expected. I tracked back uphill at the river gorge to make the crossing, and stopped gratefully to refill myself and my bottle. Sweet merciful dihydrogen monoxide. I pulled up a large flat rock and got the stove on. My phone made that hoot noise it makes when it's about to die, and my Powermonkey charger was useless (more on this later) so I made a time estimate of 90 mins to get back to the car and sent a last 'safe and well' message home before phone seppuku occured.

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A cuppa and some late breakfast made things much better and I set back off along the path, admiring the posties for their hardiness as I went. The trail itself is hard to find in places and I found myself coming to a dead end in a quiet cove on one occasion and having to backtrack some way to find a faint track heading up and over. There were many inlets to traverse around and the going was slow. A couple of river crossings later and the rocky trail gave way to boggier grassy ground.

By the time I traversed along the slope overlooking the rocky ramparts of the ancient fort at Dun Canna, I was beginning to lose my sense of goodwill towards these posties, they seemed to have been experts in finding sucking bogs and protracted ankle breaking traverses. The last 1.5k was on prepared track, so normal pace was resumed, but even then it had taken me nearly twice as long as estimated to get back to the car.

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I drove off and parked at Ardmair and stare at the ridge I'd walked that morning and take stock.

Full tank of petrol: £50

Bottle of Irn Bru: £1.75

Evil breakfast biscuits: £2

Walking airy ridges on coastal mountains with your own personal eagle guide: Priceless.

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Michael Thomson
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Re: The Rushmore finale

Postby malky_c » Thu Apr 10, 2014 1:49 pm

That's the way to do it :D . I have approached from a similar direction, but the camp and dawn experience would be the icing on the cake. I think I also underestimated the time it would take to walk the postie path by quite a lot.
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malky_c
 
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Re: The Rushmore finale

Postby Michael Thomson » Thu Apr 10, 2014 2:04 pm

I'm glad it's not just me, I found the path to be much harder work than expected. Give me off-piste route finding any day.

I'm glad I decided not to do it the other way round, starting out along that trail would have been demoralising and going straight up Choireachen with an overnight pack on would have hurt.
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Michael Thomson
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Re: The Rushmore finale

Postby Johnny Corbett » Sat Apr 12, 2014 11:27 am

Great stuff, it's a stunning looking mountain. I fancied it on my recent visit to Assynt along with the other two Grahams but with strong winds and with it going to be a long outing i opted for other walks with so many to choose from in this area. Cheers for the report :D
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Johnny Corbett
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Re: The Rushmore finale

Postby mrssanta » Sat Apr 12, 2014 1:13 pm

that was fantastic!
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mrssanta
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Re: The Rushmore finale

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Sat Apr 12, 2014 4:10 pm

Great read and stunning photos. We're planning a backpacking trip in the northwest later this month, your report really whets the appetite :D
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