Sunday, 12 May 2013

How did we end up in Ballachulish?

Below is a copy of the recent posting I did to WalkHighlands, recounting the tale of what happened to Chris Watkin and I during our recent holiday in the Highlands.
You will note that it is free of my oft-used 'colourful metaphors' - however, I would like to add the following:
For the female bus driver, please read 'bitch'.
Wherever there are references to it being windy, please read 'really, really fucking windy!!'

As we sat at the bus stop on The Square in Ballachulish village, I posted the following entry on Facebook:
We set off to climb Mam na Gualainn from how have we ended up at Ballachulish?
Well, here is the answer.

20130508.gpxOpen map in GPS Planner NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts
Wednesday 8th May followed hot on the heels of what had turned out to be (after a somewhat uninspiring start) a particularly splendid Tuesday in the Highlands. We had used that day wisely, walking a section of the Great Glen Way, partaking of ice-cream, canoeing for a few hours on the mill-pond waters of Loch Leven, even finding time to photograph wild deer in the vicinity of our Kinlochleven chalet. It was the first good day since we had arrived (though Sunday had seen a splendid, if very wet, walk up to the spectacular Blackwater Dam).
Having chosen (unwisely,perhaps) to forsake the summits on the previous day, Wednesday saw us keen to head up into the hills and the absence of clouds atop the surrounding peaks encouraged us to forego the usual holiday cooked breakfast of haggis, Stornoway black pudding, lorne sausage, egg and fried bread and instead head off early. As we set off up the West Highland Way, sharing the path with a couple of dozen walkers who were no doubt looking forward to celebrating the end of their epic endeavours in Fort William some 15 miles away, the air was warm and humid and the clouds still high. It was a promising start.
However, by the time we reached Lairigmor, where the old 'coffin path' parts company with the West Highland Way, there was a stiff, gusting breeze blowing down the valley from the East - indeed, this wind made timing our rather spectacular leaps across the rain-swollen Allt na Lairige Moire all the more difficult, as an ill-timed jump into an unexpected gust would undoubtedly have had very damp consequences.
Still, with the river negotiated (and the coffin path committed to as the reverse leap onto a raised bank was significantly more difficult, even if it would be wind-assisted) we set off determinedly up towards our target peak, Mam na Gualainn, with the intention of then proceeding East along the ridge to Beinn na Caillich and then descending the steep zig-zags back to the West Highland Way before finally stopping off at a local hostlery for a well-earned beer.
Alas, this is where our well-laid plans began to unravel.
Firstly, the wind became stronger...and I mean stronger. As we reached that point where the ascent path forks left from the coffin path, the wind had reached the point where strong gusts were literally blowing us off our feet...and this was still some 1000 feet below the summit!
Now my philosophy on such things, having experienced this sort of wind a few years ago crossing Rannoch Moor, is that gusting winds in excess of 60 mph and mountain tops with steep drops around them do not good bedfellows make. As such, both Chris and I concluded that discretion was the better part of valour and that the mountain would be there another day whereas, should our spouses learn that we had chosen to summit in such conditions, we may not be.
The view back along the valley from the Coffin Path, just before the rain arrived!

The question was, where to head for now. Three choices lay open to us. Firstly, we could retrace our steps to Lairigmor, re-cross the river and then head back along the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven. Secondly, we could instead follow the West Highland Way to Fort William and get the bus back to Kinlochleven. Thirdly, we could continue along the coffin path and descend down to the B863 on the north side of Loch Leven, there to be faced with a choice of either a 6 mile walk back to our chalet, or a 2.5 mile walk to the A82 followed by a bus ride through Ballachulish and Glencoe.
We initially decided to head back to Lairigmor, only for fate to intervene once again in the form of icy raindrops falling from a thunderous sky that had now gathered at the East end of the valley. The prospect of walking into a continuous barrage of cold rain propelled by now ferocious winds was not one to be relished, so we decided to change plans (again) and head off along the coffin path and get down off the hills.
The descent, however, was easier said than done, for not only were rocks and grass now greasy with the steadily falling rain, but the passage of many a trials motorbike earlier in the day had left the path muddy and rutted. On more than one occasion, the embarrassment of a soiled back-side was avoided only by lightning reflexes as the ground slipped away beneath us.
At last, though, we emerged, already sodden from the incessant rain and feeling as though we had gone 15 rounds with a heavyweight as a result of the buffeting wind, to be faced with the dilemma of which direction to take along the A863. Obviously 2.5 miles of road-walking with wind behind was preferable to 6 into the teeth of a gale, provided we could be confident that there would be a bus at the end of it...and, thanks to the wonders of smartphone technology, we could be, because the 44 service from Fort William to Kinlochleven would pass through North Ballachulish a few minutes after its planned stop in Onich at 1507 - that gave us about 35 minutes.
With loins girded, we set off at pace along the road, glancing furtively at our watches as we marched on.
At 1505 we reached the outskirts of North Ballachulish and at 1508 we were only five yards from the A82 and twenty yards from the bus-stop...
It's hard to explain our emotions as we watched the single-decker 44 bus go flying past at about 50 mph.
There was anger, of course; after all, the bus was early and what's the point of having timetables if you're not going to stick to them!
But there was also a kind of resigned inevitability about it, in keeping with the events of the day.
Chris chastised himself for not having run the last few hundred yards - I joined in the chastisement (naturally), but then simply said that no matter how quickly we had walked/run/sprinted, we were always destined to be 30 seconds too late. It was just that sort of day.
So, what next?
Well, the interweb was able to tell us that the next bus would not be along for another 90 minutes or so, which gave us a choice of either sitting in that particular bus shelter for the duration, or braving the wind and rain once more to stretch our legs to Ballachulish some 3 miles distant. Rather bemusingly, we chose the latter.
I'm still not entirely sure why.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I'm driving along a main road and I see a couple of walkers trudging through the rain, I often find myself wondering why they are there and why they aren't up in the mountains, away from all the traffic.
Now I know.
They are probably like us, plans gone awry, forced to walk where they don't really want to be, enjoying the spray showers that form in the wake of speeding coaches, amusing themselves by leering at the staring faces of dumbfounded car drivers.
In the future, I will not judged such people as harshly as I once did.

Eventually, we reached Ballachulish and the sanctuary that is the bus shelter on The Square. A shared party bag of Doritos from the Co-op lifted our spirits as we waited for our ride.
Before it arrived, though, the Kinlochleven to Fort William service, a single-decker 44 bus, turned up...and the female driver seemed to be wearing on her face a wry smile.
Did she recognise the bright blue of Chris's jacket, or the vivid red of the raincover on my rucksack? Did she recall a moment an hour or so earlier when, as she motored along the A82 heading for the Ballachulish bridge, she glimpsed out of the corner of her eye two bedraggled figures half-walking, half-running those last few yards of the A863 before it reached the A82 junction?
I suspect so...but I guess I can't be sure.

Some 15 minutes later, our bus arrived, a splendid double-decker, and we were whisked through the rain-soaked village of Glencoe and along the south side of Loch Leven, able to watch the clouds hurtling across the summit of Mam na Gualainn and marvel at the way that the mill-pond surface of the loch from the previous day had been transformed into a bouncing, rippling cauldron of unpleasantness.
Finally, at about 1700 hours, we arrived back at Kinlochleven...and it was still raining!
Still, at least there was the prospect of a soak in a bath, fish & chips from the chippy, a good glass of beer and a warming whisky to end a trying day.

So, in answer to the question I posted on Facebook:
We set off to climb Mam na Gualainn from how have we ended up at Ballachulish?
the answer is simple:
Wind, rain, discretion, ill-fortune and a bit of bloody-mindedness.