…We look down at Loch Beoraid, a swathe of trees barring progress down the steep hillside. Even getting to the edge of the trees looks perilous. Already I’m starting to wonder if we should have considered the ridge route, even though we (meaning I) chose not to so as to “give ourselves an easier first day”. These words come rushing back to haunt my thoughts as we contemplate the glen below, and try to work out a way down…
The day hadn’t started especially well, although after what Paul said last night, it wasn’t a huge surprise when he confirmed he would be turning tail and heading home. As the rain lashed the windows of our accommodation (I hesitate to call it a B&B as it was critically missing one of the B’s), it was easy to see that it would have taken a pretty special change of circumstances to change his decision.
I now found myself with a second gas canister, the one I’d bought for Paul yesterday, but didn’t want to dump it – the space where the money for it had been in my wallet still being warm from the expenditure. Paul couldn’t take it – airlines tend to frown on that.
We walked to the station in the cold and rain. We grabbed bacon rolls in the Lochaber cafe while it was still cold and wet outside. We met one of the Ultralight Outdoor Gear participants, a first timer, and boarded the Mallaig train – he was going the whole way, the start we did last time.
On the train, rain lashed the windows, but as the train deposited us (and just us) at Lochailort, it didn’t seem that bad. We didn’t get very wet, or windswept, on the brief road walk to the Lochailort Inn.
A bit of faffing about working out where in the deserted inside the sign-out sheet was and then somebody turned up waving a tattered notebook under our noses.
The list of names was short, maybe an omen for how many people we’d see generally, in this year of staggered starts. Louise was right there as the last starter before us, the day before (her account is here). Rolf from the Netherlands had his name already down, although with a 10am start time – it was now 09:30. So he was either still on Dutch time and ahead of us, or due to follow us.
Louise, it turned out, took the decision to not do the climb onto the ridge, and used the road for her first day. Louise has more sense than us!
Once we found the little path under a tiny bridge, it wasn’t too hard to climb up alongside the Allt na Criche. We stopped to look at a crashed plane memorial. The rain wasn’t that heavy.
The path, however, was intermittent, and becoming more so as the gradient eased and the bealach was reached. Or I say bealach – what we really had was a series of writhing swamps masquerading as paths. Up to the right the rockier route over the ridge smirked down on us and emanated smugness….
I’ve already apologised to Darren for the route.
From our precarious viewpoint, we shift position slightly to see if we can see a way down off to the left/west – the GPS is showing us slightly to the right of where we should be. Having braved the swampy rivulet jumping to get here, we’re keen to avoid having to go back that way. But all shortcuts involve an untimely end. We reluctantly backtrack.
As we do so, we spy a faint thin path through the heather that appears to achieve our purpose. Some big hopping later and we’re on it, with a sign of relief.
But relief is short-lived: the alleged path twists and turns and undulates across the hillside, getting us to the west of the impenetrable wooden barrier, but at the cost of a lot of huffing and puffing, and effing and jeffing, damp rock hops and squelches through soft ground. It’s slow progress.
We have a break in the lee of some rocks and an overhanging tree. But not for too long as the ground is soft and I feel myself starting to sink.
Ahead lies a stream to cross – a precarious rock-strewn and rock-lined affair. But not doing so would bring the embrace of the trees on the steepening hillside.
It’s not long after we’ve crossed the stream that we encounter the next problem: making downwards progress. On this side of the stream, the hillside seems to fall in a series of wide uneven ledges to the glen below. None are very tall – just high enough to be a real pain.
Nevertheless, Darren manages to actually fall off one, his pack breaking his fall, but giving a real fright. It’s brown trousers time.
I gently lower myself from the next ledge, using the minimal holds and my extra stature to arrest any unwanted sudden downwards progress. A patch of sloping wet rock leads down to the next level, and a slip would be unwelcome. Tiny careful steps are needed.
We continue in this way until we’ve reached the glen, at no point spotting an easier way we could have got down through the trees.
The boathouse at the western end of the loch is a massive relief. We take lunch in the lee of the building, gazing out over the loch, and regathering our wits. We’ve covered 4km in as many hours. At this rate of progress we should at least reach the east coast before the end of June.
It’s difficult to find the start of the path along the north shore, and that’s because IT DOESN’T EXIST. Not in any meaningful form anyway. It’s intermittent, boggy and undulating. Progress is slow, the view doesn’t change very fast.
We stop for a brew next to a stream. The rain has at least (mostly) stopped, but now we’re contending with moisture from below. We have to wade a couple of streams close to where they enter the loch.
About 2/3 of the way along the loch, we encounter people. Not just any people either. These turn out to be Challengers – Gordon and Jenny Selley. It’s good to meet some fellow Challengers at last, but what’s less good is that they’re headed in the opposite direction.
Even less good is the reason why they’re heading west – they’ve failed to find a way to cross Allt a Choire at the eastern end of the loch. And they started yesterday too.
THIS DOES NOT BODE WELL.
The chat is not prolonged – they have a lot of lochside still to cover, and then the prospect of climbing back up what we spent the morning coming down. It can’t have been an easy decision to turn back – it effectively ends their Challenge, or at least any hope of achieving a complete one.
We seize on one tiny glimmer of hope for our own situation though. In describing the river crossing, Gordon and Jenny did describe it as “not for them”, which at least holds out the possibility that it might be “for us”. They are considerably more senior than we are, and we pounce on this fact like a drowning man grabs a twig. In any case, there’s no point turning back now – we need to rest up for the night and make any decisions with fresh minds.
And so we set about looking around for a camp spot. We find one close to where the loch diminishes to a series of wide shallow streams, just before a large outcrop. Here there’s a ruined building providing at least 18 inches worth of windbreak. I drop my pack and head off to scoot up the outcrop for a look around, in case there is a better spot the other side. Gordon and Jenny did mention they camped by the building at Lochbeoraid, so it’s at least worth a look.
Shelter and flat pitches appear to be mutually exclusive, and by the building looks particularly exposed. I drop down the other side of the outcrop to test the ground, and finding none better than where we stopped, make my way carefully along the loch edge back to that spot. The tents go up, and we settle in for a night of contemplation. We’re 6km, and moreover a whole glen, short of where we wanted to be right now.
This is easily our hardest first day ever.