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Liathach by Night, A Wise Raven and a Tragic Ending

Liathach by Night, A Wise Raven and a Tragic Ending

Postby wpeterfinlay » Sat Nov 06, 2021 10:56 pm

Route description: Liathach, Glen Torridon

Munros included on this walk: Mullach an Rathain (Liathach), Spidean a' Choire Lèith (Liathach)

Date walked: 12/07/1977

Time taken: 12 hours

Distance: 24 km

Ascent: 2170m

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Torridon Church and Manse with An Ruadh-Stac and Beinn Damh beyond in April 1973

For five years I lived at the foot of Tom na Gruagaich very much aware of the jewel of Beinn Alligin hidden behind it. The waters of Upper Loch Torridon were only a few yards from my front door. After several years with the Church in northern Zambia I was now minister of the tiny Church beside my home in the same beautiful location linked to the Church in Kinlochewe. What a place to be a minister of the Word of God amidst these everlasting hills! After the great endless densely forested plains of Zambia this seemed like the perfect place for one who loved to be among the mountains. And what mountains they were - I had never been near anything like them!

My Church and Manse to Mullach an Rathain with a Rainbow arching all the way! (photo not mine)
I had been there about four years exploring them all before this particular adventure. A perfect July day visiting folk in the far flung parish. It had now drawn to a close. I stood outside the Manse and gazed across the loch at Beinn Shieldaig and Beinn Damh, Beinn na h-Eaglaise, An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Cheann-Dearg, Sgòrr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhòr and where else after that than the mighty Liathach itself.

That is when an unlikely thought formed in my mind. I was looking at the pyramid of Sgòrr a' Chadail and that should have made me think of my bed and 'chadail' or sleep as it means in the Gaelic. Instead it had me packing a few things and setting off along the rough track back from the Church and my Manse. My black Labrador was with me. As ever, it's good to have a wise friend for such an adventure and who wiser than a Raven which was his name, or rather it was Raven in the Gaelic - Fitheach. To help with the pronunciation you have to say something like Fee-huch and, as you say it with the rough Scottish 'ch' at the end, you can almost hear the harsh cry of the raven in it.

Fitheach - the Raven - in his first snow, Torridon, December 1974

Soon we had turned off the the track and we were heading up the path through the Scots pines to the Coire Mhic Nòbuil road bridge and the start of the ascent in the increasing darkness. We went up through the rough heather past the few small crags with the dark pyramid always ahead silhouetted against the stars in what was a fairly moonless sky. We had left the Manse a little after 10pm and we reached the top of the Sgòrr by around midnight to see some lights still on in some of the cottages far below. Now it was onwards into a region far from human sight or thought. It was up and further up the great rising western slopes that lead up to the strangely named Mullach an Rathain named 'Summit of the Pulley' after the shape of two prominent rocks at its summit as seen from the little village of Fasag below. These rocks resemble the grooved pulley at the end of the spindle of a spinning wheel which receives the driving cord.(Ainmean Àite na h-Alba - Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland). In Gaelic it is simply called 'An Rathan' - the local Torridon name for this part of a spinning wheel. 'Mullach' or summit was possibly added by some map maker. The Horns of Alligin have the same name in Gaelic (Na Rathanan) for the same reason - The Pulleys.

Now we were into real wildness and utter remoteness. Beneath was the vast chasm of Coire na Caime and ahead the Am Fasarinen pinnacles seen end on, then the beautifully shaped final summit itself of the Grey One, the Spidean a' Choire Lèith. And that is where we were heading. I had been over the Fasarinen many a time in broad daylight but now it was a step (or two or three steps!) into the dark. But at least there was the beginning of a very slight hint of a lightening of sky in the East. And so the pinnacles of this intimidating ridge were now being tackled one by one. Fitheach kept to the skirting path with an eye constantly on me above. And it was a surprisingly good place to be. I suppose the exposure looked less intimidating in the dark! The constant vast emptiness to my left, the final goal ahead and a brave Raven somewhere below taking a keen interest in what I was up to.

So at length we were past the last part of the Fasarinen and the red-pink Torridonian sandstone gave way to the whitish grey of the great quartzite blocks that tell that the summit is near. Once on the summit there was time for a longish rest and time to say to myself this must surely be the most amazing sight anywhere one could ever imagine, for it really was far beyond any of our imaginings. The half light was enough to see right down to the Coire floor and its lochan where I had tried my hand to land a small brown trout a few times. The sheer vastness of the place was totally overwhelming, grey space after grey space after grey space with no seeming end. The jagged ramparts of the Fasarinen to the left now, the far distant looking Mullach from which we had come a couple of hours before, the Glen beyond of the Coire Mhic Nòbuil River, multi-terraced Beinn Dearg and my lovely Beinn Alligin. Over my shoulder to the east yet more magnificence. It was certainly not a place to hurry over. It could have been the cradle of Creation itself, and the rocks around were certainly almost ancient enough.

I used to have weird fanciful thoughts of what an experience it would be to have some great world class orchestra up there and, to fit the scene, the deep powerful sonorities of Haydn's Die Vorstellung Des Chaos from the opening of his great work, The Creation, echoing there in that vastness from rock face to rock face and right up to the Heavens above. The praises of Almighty God resounding for ever from the deep heart of Torridon!

Eventually though we were on our way over first Stob a'Choire Liath Mhor then on to the most easterly top, Stùc a' Choire Dhuibh Bhig with its great views of of the other truly massive of the Torridons, Beinn Eighe with early light gleaming on its quartzite screes. From there we returned along the ridge to descend steeply by the 'tourist' path down to the Glen. However before reaching the road I decided to go back by Coire Duibh Mhòr then Coire Mhic Nòbuil with its views far above back to the amazing ridge we had traversed. And on that route a new temptation suddenly sprang into my mind in the shape of the fourth of Torridon's giants. Beinn Dearg is a mere couple of feet short of Munro status, as if that matters at all! It is still a very fine mountain by any standard. So up its steep slopes we went and amazingly by around 7am there we were on its summit!

Myself and a much older Fitheach on top of Sgùrr nan Gillean in 1984

Beinn Alligin now did not look too far off and despite having been awake for 24 hours I felt pretty full of energy. That was how I got the notion of returning home via the 'slight' detour of including the Jewel of Torridon in the expedition. Without too much thought for poor old (3 years) Fitheach I started to ascend towards the horns and reached about 300 feet up before noticing I was actually on my own! I looked back down the hill and there sitting at the foot was my wise Raven with a tilt of his head as he looked up which seemed to be assessing the sense - or more likely the lack of it - of his master!

So I gave in and retreated back to him hoping he might think I had only been on a brief reconnaissance. So we made our way down and back to the Manse where I tumbled into bed about 10am and instantly fell into a very deep sleep. It didn't seem to have lasted very long (though it might have been 4 or 5 hours) before there was a loud hammering on the front door. I'm afraid, barely awake, I ignored the disturbance and fell back into my sleep.

It turned out that the summons was in fact one that I should certainly have responded to and would have except on this one day in all the five years I lived in Torridon! The members of the Torridon Mountain Rescue (to which I belonged) were not to know that I had been on the go all pf the previous night!

What was it all about? It was in fact about a tragedy that had taken place that very day while I slept. A young man had alerted TMR to tell them his father had slipped and fallen some way on Tom na Gruagaich. Very sadly the man died of his injuries. It turned out he was a distinguished Oxford mathematician, Raymond Whipple who had an equation called the Whipple equation named after him.To quote, though the description is a little over my head: 'Ray Whipple was the brilliant mathematician who In 1938 had calculated the re-radiation of a vertical conductor in relation to the incident field, a vitally important contribution to the development of radio direction finding.....' His work later was of huge importance in determining the positions of mines off the Normandy coast whose clearance was vital to the success of the Allied troops landing there in June 1944. It was very sad that he should have met his death in such a way in Torridon, yet perhaps it was a death he would have preferred to possibly lingering on from some prolonged illness later in life when mountains had been something of a passion of his.

I may have missed on being involved in an attempted rescue (and who knows but for my wise dog I might just have been there in the very place round about the time of his accident) but shortly after his son Simon, who had been with him when he fell, and his wife Mary asked if I would take a little service for the family when they returned to Torridon. His ashes were scattered on the edge of the Coire Mhic Nòbuil gorge where it enters the Scots pine woods with the place he fell on Tom na Gruagaich high above. There I said some prayers with them and I seem to remember I quoted the psalm given here at the end. Mary's ashes were scattered in the very same place some 14 years later.

When I set off for that wonderful walk in the dark of a glorious summer evening little could I have guessed how it would end. The Psalmist over 3000 years ago wrote his famous Psalm 'I to the hills will lift my eyes'. It is a song for all who love the mountains. Some of its lines seem contradicted by what happened that July day to Ray Whipple whose foot did indeed sadly slide, and contradicted too by others who have died in the hills. Yet they are such great words, words that can make us all think about the ultimate things in life and in death and about the possibility of an all-encompassing Greater Love beyond, I think they are worth quoting in full at the end here. They are from Psalm 121. They were often sung (with no organ or other musical accompaniment) in that little church amidst the eternal hills from which I had set out on that July evening.

I to the hills will lift mine eyes,
from whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heav’n and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not, nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps, the Lord thy shade
on thy right hand doth stay:
The moon by night thee shall not smite,
nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; he shall
preserve thee from all ill.
Henceforth thy going out and in
God keep for ever will.

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Last edited by wpeterfinlay on Fri Nov 19, 2021 7:32 pm, edited 7 times in total.
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Re: The Grey One of Torridon - Liathach by Night

Postby R1ggered » Sun Nov 07, 2021 2:41 pm

The best report/story i have read on this site and there has been a lot of great reports. :clap: :clap:
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Re: Liathach by Night, and a Tragic Ending

Postby Mal Grey » Sun Nov 07, 2021 10:53 pm

What a wonderful telling of a remarkable adventure, albeit with a sad ending.

It must have been a fabulous place to live for a few years. You were clearly pretty fit at the time!
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Location: Surrey, probably in a canoe! www.wildernessisastateofmind.co.uk

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