A man with a van!
by allymacp » Sun Mar 22, 2015 8:00 pm
Route description: Gulvain, near Kinlocheil
Munros included on this walk: Carn Liath (Creag Meagaidh), Gulvain
Date walked: 22/03/20153 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Rockin Vans' down at Galston provided the transport, a VW Transporter. Taking the B'Roads to get there, the smell of adventure was in the air. On arrival its a case of sign this, this is a van, keys handed over and ‘see ya in three days.’
Tentative and nervous gear changes as the van finally rolls off the starting line and onto the open road. Taking the M77, M80 and A9 the landscapes get bigger. Buildings and towns slowly become trees and countryside. The hills become mountains. Most of said mountains are shrouded in cloud and snow, landscapes I know I’ve never seen. Then I know i'm out there, the tarmac ribbon takes me and I duly follow. The views are solid and everywhere, it takes all my concentration to keep my eyes on the road. I take sneaky peaks. None of the car parks along the way allowed me to get any photos of the really big vistas which was quite disappointing. And so Stirling, Perth, Pitlochry are long gone, Dalwhinnie appears grey and ghostly as I cruise though. The transformation from civilisation to wilderness is complete. Free from the devices and distractions of societal dictation.
The A86 swerves its way down to Loch Laggan, a great road weaving just enough to give rough views of the building hillsides. Creag Meagaidh nature reserves appears quickly and its time to set up for the first evening. The view up to tomorrows munros are harassed by the blanket clouds. The snow only helps to make it look more foreign and forbidding. First night in the van is weird, trying to get used to your surroundings, but soon I have the pasta boiling and my bed is laid out. It is bitterly cold though and I sleep in thermals, t-shirt fleece and hat!
I woke up at about 7 due to the rumble of car doors closing and pulled myself out the sleeping bag. Had a quick breakfast and started up the path about 8am. The hills looked thick with cloud and none of the tops were visible, but the air was still and all was peaceful. The path is easy to begin with, a pleasant enough section up to the hillside. The turn off for the path up the broad ridge came and went (No cairn left anymore to indicate) so I trudged up a heathery slope to rejoin the path higher up and followed the metal stakes up and into the clouds. There was no sight of the tops, but the dangerous looking Coire Ardair appeared ominous and dark to my left handed. ‘The window’ appeared briefly at the end of the valley. The path came and went between huge patches of snow. Fortunately a fellow walker from previous days had left a trail to follow.
The wind stayed away, but clearly there was no chance of a cloud free munro today. I checked compass readings and headed north north east for the top. One of the benefits of a cloud covered top is that your progress is less easily tracked and so the cairn appeared out of nowhere. I reached the beehive mound of Carn Liath at about 9.45am.
The wind had picked up a little and the spindrift was whisking though the air, but I took shelter behind the cairn and stopped for a break and some photos. I really couldn’t see much ahead of me further than about 20-30 feet, and with huge overhangs and cornices potentially ahead, I decided to call it and head back down. No sense in risking things on my first day out, I would head down and wander up the corrie instead on the lower path.
I headed down following my own tracks initially, but lost them fairly quickly. As I came down, the clouds really shrouded my immediate surroundings and I couldn’t discern between sky and ground. No snow in the air, but as close to whiteout conditions as i have experienced. I kept going down. I didn’t recognise the ground under my feet. Much bigger snow banks than i had encountered on the way up. I donned the crampons for some extra grip on the frozen wind-formed snow. I stopped and checked the compass, to my surprise it advised I was heading north! How did I manage to do a full turnaround from the summit? I came down a little further to make out the valley below and didn’t recognise any features. Ok, I need to head back up and over the summit again and checked the compass again and headed on a SSW reading. Going up was hard work again, it was windier and the snow was being flicked around the air carelessly. After retracing steps and heading up for 5-10mins I checked the compass again and it said I was going north! I just couldn’t work it out. I checked and checked and checked again and started to descend, again. As I came down further and out of the clouds I realised my mistake. I had come down a little further east of the route down and it had deceived me, hence the lack of familiar features. The compass readings still stumped me, and I wonder if this was down to not concentrating enough, and letting a little panic seep in in the bad weather. I certainly put this down for good experience on the hills, and something to learn from.
As I came down I found the path and the views across Loch Laggan were superb, the suns rays were leaking through weaknesses in the cloud. The loch shimmered, the hills across the way looking majestic in scattered light. I crossed paths with a couple who were heading up and chatted for a moment with them. As is often typical the ridge was now coming into view ever so slightly, and this progress continued as I wheeled down the hill. I was disappointed to miss a weather window, especially being out here with no time restraints. I didn’t feel like heading back up however, due to the problems descending. So I wandered down the path I should have come up, and was glad to have made my own way up that heathery slope earlier in the day as the correct path was horrible. Through birches, up and down and over boulders and streams and bog, it was relentless and I’m glad I didn’t do this on the way up. As it turned out the turn off was very indistinct anyway and I didn’t feel so bad for missing it. Arriving at the nature reserve path system I took a right and swung up to the corrie with the sun shining. The sunglasses on this time for the light and not the snow. The path up really makes you feel like you are away from it all. I’ve not done much winter walking before and so I’ve not often seen the combination of snowy overhangs and gullies. Hugely impressive.
As i looked up at the ridge, the cloud was starting to lift. Typical. I could see all the way along to the window now, Creag Meagaidh was still shrouded in a cloudy veil though. I felt envious of the couple i passed and the no doubt super views they were seeing. As the path continued and the views opened up I was roasting in the sun, and I stripped off to accommodate the extra heat. Snap snap snapping away at the camera and taking the views in, I then returned to the car park trying my hardest to not look round and the now extensive views of the ridge. Back at the van and feeling miffed at the weather, not for the first or the last time, I took off for Fort William and Glenfinnan. The van came into its own at this stage, the road weaved with Nevis range coming into sight and towering over all. Driving into the sun, with the windows down and the fresh air streaming in, all the mornings problems were forgotten.
Out to Glenfinnan and I stopped for pictures, there can't be many more places more scenic that Charlie could have picked to rally his guard. For the clansmen that did turn up, it must have helped stir emotions. I moved off further west, although not for long. Stopping at Loch Eil, it was like someone had prefabricated a mirror and placed it on the surface. The hills and surrounding mountains were cast into another dimension somewhere below me. A parallel universe in front of the eye.
My plan this evening was to find a space on Loch Ailort, and I took the Strontian road south. After 15 minutes I was there, my furthest point out on the trip. I found a pitch 20m from the pebbly beach and shoreline. The sun was setting behind a cloud bank, splitting for the various islands and peninsulas that ventured into the loch. The whole scene was serene and beautiful. I clambered over the rocks and shoreline and just sat watching the scenery tick by. As the clouds break up for a moment sunlight pours onto the loch’s surface, and I put everything down, watching the sunset for the next hour or so with van door open and no-one around except for me. I felt like mother nature was just egging me on. “there you go mate, I know today wasn’t good for walking but this is cool right?” The temperature had dropped and once the light left, I retreated into my cave on wheels had dinner and snuck into the sleeping bag. Happy with the end of the day I felt I was in the proverbial zone. Tomorrow, Gulvain.
The nights sleep was interrupted throughout, I kept getting caught in the sleeping bag tossing and turning constantly until it sat right. It wasn’t nearly as cold though and I awoke to clear skies. The opposite shore was bathed in early morning light, the pinks, greys and blues and I felt awake almost instantly. Today had a good day written all over it, and I was really in the mood for more walking. Grabbed some breakfast and drove up to the A861 road for the start of Gulvain. On hitting loch Eil on the way back up, a most intense redding orange orb hung low in the sky, the lantern being raised for the day.
The sun dipped in and out of view but warmed the van and my spirits for the day ahead. Parking up I kitted up and started off at 7.30 for the long walk in. I was not surprised by the walk in having read fellow walkers tales of this track, and so I put it to the back of my head and strode up the good path in the warming sun. I was not conscious of the distance to begin with, until you see the Gulvain ridge rise from the valley floor and it just never seems to arrive.
This whole time you are not climbing and I yearned for some height but eventually I reached the start of the climb after 1.30h.
What happened next was a relentless, huffy slog, and my obvious lack of munro action since last year became apparent. Up and up it went, there are no views to speak of, so there is nothing for it but to get the head down and climb. Fortunately the path was bone dry, the sun warm and it was glorious walking conditions, with promises of views at the summit. As I climbed the view did open behind me but revealed nothing of the ridge ahead. The hazy horizon revealed towering snow clad peaks, just truly epic scenery.
As with yesterday the wind was minimal and progress was steady, stopping occasionally for water and photographs. On reaching the smaller top before the south peak, Gulvain sat at the end of a long ridge and still seemed explicitly far away! At this point though i was still only climbing in a t-shirt and fleece and was grateful for the superb conditions after yesterdays non-starter.
So up onto the south top and the sight before me was daunting. Snow clung to rock, the rock to snow and there were patches hanging onto the summit. I descended to the bealach quite easily, the snow was powdery but firm underfoot and I didn’t feel the need for crampons at any point. For the most part I followed the footsteps of previous walkers, journeys frozen in time, someone else’s day, someones else’s tales. About 50m from the top, there was a huge snowfield that covered the path. Cliffs to the left, a snowy slide to the valley below on my right. Again the footsteps helped to guide me, axe out I kicked in and crossed with no problems. For me it was massive though, and good experience having not seen many conditions like this in front of me. I was loving it!!
I made the summit just shy of four hours and was flat-out exhausted. I lay down on my waterproofs, closed my eyes and allowed my breathing to return to normal.
Being so tired I could have just lain frozen on the snow, but I raised myself enough to pack away some pork pies, chocolate and water and received an immediate boost. With the wind picking up it was on with the jacket, hat and bluff. The views were stunning but hazy and so in part it was restrictive. To my north however the remoteness of Knoydart reminded me starkly of how isolated I was from everything. Looking northwards feels like real wilderness, and I'm happy with my efforts so far.
It was far from over however, and there was the small case of the walk out. Going back, the ridge was more impressive, like something out of an alpine or himalayan setting. The views were like the films I’ve watched, pictures I’ve poured over, except it was right in front of me. The sun-cast and wind-formed east side of the south top, the steep craggy shadowy west face looked brutal in its extensiveness.
From the south top I headed over and down the hillside, with the going easy under dry bouncy grass.
I was feeling blessed to see the landscape in its current state, Mother Nature waits for no-one, and it could just as easily have been rotten weather for the timing of my trip. I bumped into a guy on the way up and again stopped to hear what he had to say on the conditions, walking, life!
Arriving on level ground I was relieved, having only ascended and descended for the past four or so hours! Big strides and I wandered back in the warm early Spring sun. The long walk out is apparent about 7/8 km I think - but the environment kept it interesting. Nesting frogs and spawn a plenty, the river a constant and clear companion until arriving back at my van.
I was calling it my van by now, giving it back is not an option!! All in I took about 7.5hrs.
The driving today was superb, with dry roads, sun-shining and Eastern European dance music blaring in the stereo (cheers Rockin’ Vans for leaving the CD in there!), I was having the time of my life. As you approach Fort William from this side, the Ben just rises and doesn’t stop, it is simply massive. You really do get an appreciated for how small you are, and how little impact you potentially have. Morbid thinking perhaps, but for me, its only happy thoughts. The same ones that creep in later as I drive through Glencoe. After stopping at FW for fuel, I set off down the A82. I found it oddly disconcerting to see Glasgow on the sign posts, the first sign of the life I lead after three days away. I pushed those thoughts out. As you turn into Loch Leven, just before North Ballachulish, the view opens into a wide panorama, the pap of Glencoe inviting you onwards. Mountains stretch up to the sky, fingers of snow stretch further. Down low the little houses and boats seem like a toy landscape. The diorama back drop to someones train set. Driving over the Ballachulish bridge with the horseshoe of Sgorr Dhonuill and Sgorr Dhearg towering above, you enter the another world - Glencoe. The late afternoon sun showing off the rocky features of the famous glen. Sunlight filtered down gullies, the rock trying to break free from its winter clothing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Glencoe in the same way twice, which makes this road all the more appealing.
Up and onto Rannoch Moor, Glencoe spits you out as quickly as it swallowed you up, and Buachaille Etive Mor waves me off, for now.
I parked up just off the A82 at the car park above Loch Tulla with the van facing west and watched the sun set out the windscreen, enjoying my last evening reflecting on the past few days. Experience gained, stories to tell and another two boxes ticked.
There was quite a show from the stars that night, scattered in all directions, light transcending the ages. Apart from the odd car on the A82 last night it was fairly peaceful, although it was bitterly cold in the morning. Time to hand the van back. I tidied up the back, put things back in some kind of order. The disorder of the previous days, nothing HAS to be done on those days! Time again to prepare for going home. I headed down the road to Tyndrum hoping for some Green Welly breakfast, but they were still operating on winter times! Its not summer yet, but today felt like it. I drove back down the road, stopping for a few photos. Loch Lomond and it various turtle backed islands, shimmered and reflected. Onwards to Luss for a roll and a coffee.
The drive home was filled with heart, having enjoyed my time away, then you enter back to a world thats knows little of what you’ve seen. That kept me smiling through Renton, Paisley, and then a break to the country roads again for the return to Hurlford. Over the old A77, which is national speed limit and runs parallel to the motorway, is great for darting round the hills and forests. I then head off through the hills behind Galston, through Moscow and onto the starting point. Filling up with petrol, I didn’t realise my connection to the van until I had to hand it over, it had been a fantastic companion for a few days.
So all in for a first trip of the year out, it was a mighty success. After the disappointment of the first day, the next 48hrs more than made up for it, and I'm looking forward to the season ahead. I have to recommend the campervan as a way to do it as well, utterly brilliant fun.
- Summit ridge
by Alteknacker » Sun Mar 22, 2015 9:29 pm
I've tried the odd night in my small estate car, but the security alarm doesn't much care for my tossing and turning! I'm sure a van is the better option!
by Huff_n_Puff » Sun Mar 22, 2015 10:23 pm
by allymacp » Sun Mar 22, 2015 10:26 pm
by allymacp » Sun Mar 22, 2015 10:28 pm
Huff_n_Puff wrote:Ohh I enjoyed reading that
Thanks Huff n Puff
It really felt good for the first outing of the year too - what more to come?
by jarvis74 » Mon Mar 23, 2015 12:24 am
Great photos too - conditions looked perfect I
Still to tackle Gulvain - hoping to do that soon but probably take the bike to avoid the long walk in/out! Cheers.
by Beaner001 » Mon Mar 23, 2015 1:23 pm
by allymacp » Mon Mar 23, 2015 2:18 pm
Beaner001 wrote:Really enjoyed that report mate, what a way to spend a few days! I'd sure like to try out the camper van, I wonder if dogs would be allowed......
Cheers Beaner! The campervan added an extra something to the trip, definitely a good idea for something different. The company I hired from allow pets, think you just need to let them know before hand - you'll be onto a winner!
by allymacp » Mon Mar 23, 2015 3:56 pm
jarvis74 wrote:Loved this report, especially with it being combined with a campervan trip! (we had an amazing experience taking a hired one up to Sutherland and bagging Ben Hope on the way north a couple of years back).
Great photos too - conditions looked perfect I
Still to tackle Gulvain - hoping to do that soon but probably take the bike to avoid the long walk in/out! Cheers.
Thanks Jarvis! Sutherland I can only imagine must he great in a van - you've planted seeds for the next trip. If you can get a bike, it would probably be best, especially after all that climbing, enjoy it when you come round to Gulvain!