Monday 7th March 2016
In the days leading up to this trip I was feeling more than a little apprehensive. I’ve done some big hills, usually with a bigger pack and normally in warmer months. The trip was organised by a guy I met on a Facebook group of like-minded individuals on Mr Chris Pinnell. I’ve wanted to do a big hill day and wild camp in Winter for a long while but I’ve never had the combination of timing and kit to follow up on this desire. So when Chris suggested the trip and offered the loan of a big puffy down jacket, winter boots suitable for crampons, the crampons themselves and an ice axe I agreed wholeheartedly, if not with a small sense of caution.
As the trip approached this sense of caution increased to a sense of anxiety. Was I fit enough? Did I have the necessary skills? Did Chris? After all though we had been conversing for the better part of a year we had yet to meet and despite his apparent experience of the hills in winter I didn’t really know the guy. It was a conversation with Chris that turned my misgivings to a proper sense of excitement and anticipation. Just as it should be before a wild camping trip at any time of year.
The choice of locale I left entirely up to Chris, though initially we had discussed Snowdonia as the favoured destination though this was obviously a decision that would ultimately be decided by the weather and ground conditions nearer the time. A week before going Chris sent me an image of the area he had in mind. Not Snowdonia but Ben More near Crianlarich in the Trossachs. Chris would pick me up after work on the Friday after I finished work and he’d drive us up there for a late start with a view to making camp on the bealach between Ben More and Stob Binnein. As a destination for doing what I love doing – wild camping and hiking – the Highlands of Scotland are number one on my list of the best places in the UK.
I’d all but talked my self out of going the week before we were due to go. I have a tendency to overthink things, doubt myself and not face up to my demons. Chris was not fazed by my lack of commitment and when I told him that I wasn’t feeling capable or confident he more or less shrugged and told me it was up to me. A couple of brief paragraph exchanges later I had done a complete U-Turn and was getting excited about the trip.
So, two nights with a late start on the first day due to the long drive in and one big summit on the Saturday morning with a camp on the summit Saturday evening. The weather was looking more and more promising as the week went on. My excitement grew.
Friday 26th February 2016
The day arrived. I managed to wangle an hour off the end of my shift so was done for 1130 and cycling home in short order. My pack was packed already and I needed to get a quick shower, get dressed and wait for Chris. Halfway home I received a message telling me to get the kettle on and Chris was sat having a cuppa and chatting to the Mrs by the time I walked in the back door. Izzy had been a little apprehensive about the trip herself when she realised there was actual winter mountaineering gear in the offing thus an increased reality of danger. She wouldn’t have tried talking me out of going unless I’d given her reason but I think Chris’s manner helped put her at ease about some of her fears.
In no time we were on the road.
The long drive to Scotland flew by as we chatted animatedly about all manner of subjects from inane crap to our personal histories. Both of us were clearly hyped about the trip. My mood was only slightly dampened by the fact that it was a struggle to get the loan boots on my feet. The right foot in particular was nigh on impossible to get on until I removed the insoles and replaced them with those out of my Wildcats. These were a lot thinner and less insulated/cushioned but in a toss-up between frozen wet feet (I only had the Wildcat’s with me) and cold partially crippled feet what was I to choose? I wasn’t going to let the possibilities drag me down.
The crampons, ice axe and jacket were all eventually removed from the Disney Frozen bag Chris had packed them in and examined; this choice says a lot about Mr Pinnell’s sense of fun lol. The use of the crampons and axe were something I’d face tomorrow when they were more likely to be needed. The jacket – a Rab Summit – felt reassuringly substantial. Chris had also brought along a liquid fuel stove and enough petrol to last the trip. Liquid fuel stoves were another enigma I would lift the veil on this trip.
We arrived in Crianlarich a bit after 7pm and stopped off at the local for a couple of pints and a 2 course meal. Suitably fortified we went out into the chilly dark night and set about readying our gear before Chris dropped myself and the packs off at the foot of the path up into Benmore Glen whilst he drove a km or so along the road to park the car.
The path joined a a good track that wound it’s way steadily up into the glen. We were both feeling the long day, the food sitting heavily in our bellies and the weight of our packs. We set a slow pace and discussed our plan as we walked along the darkened track. It was overcast and chilly, a slight breeze doing little to disturb the relative stillness of the glen. I had a sense of the brooding peaks looming to either side of us but with our headtorches on we saw little beyond the immediate surroundings. The glowing eyes of an occasional sheep looking back at us. Frost glistened on the track and there was a sparse smattering of snow to the side of us.
Initially we had planned on making camp at the bealach between Ben More and Stob Binnein but only 2km in and with an ascent of 250m or so it was clear to us that that was an ambitious goal. It was gone 1030pm and neither of us were getting any less tired so we found a likely path upwards and found a half-decent place to pitch for the night at about 450m. Chris gave me a quick introduction to the liquid fuel stove and we had a quick cuppa before turning in. I set my alarm for a predawn wake-up so I could get some footage of the dawn along the glen.
Saturday 28th Februray 2016
As usual I slept like a baby but as seems to be becoming more common since my working shift pattern as gone from alternates to permanent days I woke a little before my alarm. The anticipation of the view from my shelter had something to do with my wakefulness too . Silencing the alarm before it could disturb Chris – who was still sound off, I unzipped the inner and looked out. With the temp being so close to freezing and very little wind it seemed wise to leave one door open all night.
The view was far from disappointing. Leaning out of the door I set the camera up to film the growing light of dawn along the glen and lay back down, staring at the slopes of Stob Gharb on the opposite side of the glen as I drifted off into a doze for a half-hour.
We were breakfasted and packed by 0830 and setting off shortly after. There was no great sense of urgency as we knew we’d reach the summit about dinner time and we had no plans to go any further unless the top proved to have nowhere to pitch, which seemed very unlikely. If there was room up top for only one shelter then we’d pitch Chris’s Voyager and dive in that. In retrospect I’m very glad that wasn’t the case as although it is a fantastic shelter, a spacious and stable palace for one, it would have been decidedly tight with the two of us inside.
The flanks of Ben more looming above us were coated in a thick coat of snow that made it difficult to get a sense of scale. With only minimal discussion of our route Chris set off up the path a good 10 minutes before me as I finished off the last bits of packing and downed my cup of coffee. He was out of sight by the time I set off after him. The way soon became steeper and the snow deeper.
The morning rapidly brightened and the air remained almost still. Perfect conditions. The whole experience was exhilarating. The views were just getting better and the mountain showed no signs of relenting but I felt good. Not just mentally and emotionally but physically.
We donned crampons at about 550m but I hung on to my trekking poles for a further 100m or so, until the way became deeper and the neve thicker above a deeper bed of snow, at which point I put them away and took the walking axe in hand. Chris gave me an instructional few minutes on the usage of both pieces of kit. At first I took my time, getting to grips with the feel of them but I soon was back up close behind Chris. Admittedly he had the harder job of leading and I followed his tracks, stepping directly in his footsteps for the most part, so that I had to pause for a minute or so at a time to allow him to stay safely far enough ahead. He took pains to remind me to stay back as the way became steeper and we navigated over sections of wind slab and neve that was a good couple of inches thick in places.
These were all terms of which I had little actual knowledge but which became evidently clear to me in definition as we ascended Ben More.
At first we had it in mind to make our way over to the right and onto the bealach as the route we were on was taking a more direct line to the summit. We could have done so but the way straight up was inviting and offered a more exciting proposition that Chris obviously felt was more appealing. I agreed by tacit acceptance of his greater experience. Later on the summit I recall him saying that he liked my quiet confidence and manner, so this may have aided him in his decision to lead us that way. I did feel good and confident though there were moments after the 900m mark when I had a ‘wobble’ echoing back to my doubts before the trip. One mistake or mistep here would mean a slide of hundreds of feet. I kept rehearsing the arresting actions with the axe so that it would come more naturally should it be needed. More than anything though I just kept positive and reveled in the beauty of the landscape around us and opening up into the distances the higher we went.
The final 100m or so to the summit ridge were the worst as we both started to get leg cramps. I had one particularly bad bout in my right leg above my knee that meant I had to take a couple of short breaks and meant that Chris reached the ridge to the summit about 5 minutes ahead of me.
I topped the rise and stepped onto level ground for the first time in what seemed like an age. Chris’s pack lay discarded in the snow, a suspect mango coloured stain several feet beyond. Avoid eating yellow snow? Mango coloured may look more appetising but it isn’t in this case! Dehydration is possibly even harder to avoid at this time of year. We had made a point of drinking at each of our stops but clearly not enough.
What a view there was from that vantage. I felt a big grin plaster itself all over my face. A great sense of satisfaction and achievement. Okay it’s not the biggest peak but it was my first winter top.
Or it would be once Chris returned from his foray further up the ridge which was hidden beyond some snow and rime-frosted crags.
The view to the south was dominated by Ben More’s sister peak Stob Binnein, her fine almost pyramidal shape dominated by a long cornice-laden ridge. There were tiny people on her summit. But the eyes were drawn to the distance, to the dozens of snow-covered lesser peaks. No peak south of Ben More stands higher in the UK, the 15 greater peaks on the table of highest tops lying further north.
Chris returned and we shared some self-congratulatory grins and remarks before packing up and making our way the last 75m or so to the summit. The views just kept growing, opening up 360 degrees for 40 or 50 miles. To the north the Nevis Range and the Ben herself were clearly visible 30 odd miles away. It’s for the views like this that we go to the hills and keep going back. But days like this were too few and far between.
It was shortly after midday and there were a few people about. Yet we had all day to enjoy the top. These few people would be missing out on the best times to enjoy the views. They had to be down off the mountain in short order to make it back to their cars and hotels before dark. It is one of the greatest joys of wild camping to share the solitude of the mountain with nothing and no-one other than ourselves and the little wildlife she sheltered.
We idled about for a short while, conversing with a particularly nice guy from Perth who glided up onto the summit on ski’s. It was he who kindly pointed out the distant landmarks to our unschooled eyes. There were a few people about skiing. It must be a fantastic way to get about in those conditions. The fellow from Perth disabused me of the notion that it must be quite hard work to gain such height. I am a complete stranger to skiing. It must be great fun to tackle routes that you wouldn’t dream of taking at any other time of year on foot. Just as there are routes you would tackle on foot at no other time of year.
Chris pitched his tent long before the last person had moved off. Several people approached with a keen interest in our intention to camp there and the cuben fiber goodness of Chris’s tent. A couple of older gent’s approached separately and seemed drawn to touch the fabric which I found quite bizarre. It is a cracking material and a brilliant shelter though.
As Chris predicted the majority of summiteers were gone by 2pm and we had the summit to ourselves.
The afternoon continued much as the morning had: still and beautifully clear above the mountain. There were signs of increasing cloud to the south but it never reached us. We spent the time wandering about from viewpoint to viewpoint, taking photos and filming with out action cams. I familiarised myself with the petrol stove beast melting snow for brews. Never before have I taken such a casual approach to setting camp, performing camp admin with such a piecemeal, unhurried manner. We talked some but we also soaked in the sublime peace in our own space. We drank several cups of tea and snacked.
Chris took out his big boys toy: the DJI Phantom drone. It was his plan to film me as I set up the Stratospire but as it happened the ground I chose to pitch on was far too rocky for several of my tie-out pegs and the filming was a write-off. Not that he didn’t get some fine footage of the summit for his film of the trip. Check out his video on YouTube (Nobody You Would Know is his username).
Sundown came about all too soon and the temperature began to drop so I donned my ‘Aldi Special’ merino wool longjohns. Combined with my Terra Pants and overtrousers these kept my legs warm all evening. The Rab jacket Chris loaned me kept me equally toasty and the only thing to feel the cold were my toes later on that night. A stomp about the peak soon warmed them up.
The sunset was class. The first stars began to appear and we were hopeful that the small amount of haze in the air wouldn’t spoil the Milky Way.
Whilst the stars appeared by the dozens and the hundreds Chris started our evening meal. The vacuum packed fillet of steak he had passed me back at the car the previous evening and I took to be a piece to share between us turned out to be all mine! It was about the best bit of steak I had had in a long time, served up with crispy fried potatoes and onion. We ate sheltered from the growing cold in my tent. The readout on his Skywatch anenometer registered a low of almost -8 hanging in the lee of his tent. Things would not have been so much fun had there been a wind to mention.
When we emerged the Milky Way was putting on a show the like of which isn’t seen often enough. Certainly not in the neighbourhoods in which we live. The lights of Perth, Stirling and Glasgow impacted on the horizons away in their direction but to the north and directly overhead the vast multitude of stars was awe-inspiring.
We drank Bailey’s Coffee flavoured liqueur and craned our necks into the small hours, identifying stars and constellations we recognised. I saw a couple of shooting stars that Chris missed. He took a great timelapse of the night sky that can be seen on his YouTube film of the trip. As with the drone footage that he shot it is fantastic but falls short of actually experiencing it.
When I retired to my shelter I was soon asleep. Chris later said that no sooner had I zipped up the fly than it seemed he could hear my snores from where he sat in his porch melting snow for a late night brew. They must have been good snores to be heard from forty feet away over the roaring of his stove! 😀
Sunday 28th February 2016
I woke once at around 3am for a necessary act of nature. I won’t go into any details but I couldn’t force myself to leave the relative warmth of the tent. There was frost on the inside of the inner as well as on the outer so I’ll let you imagine how cold it must’ve been OUTSIDE the shelter! I managed to avoid getting the frost brushed off the inner on to my hat into my bag and was back asleep in moments.
I woke again to find the tent lit from without by the rising sun and hurriedly unzipped the layers between me and the outside to set up the action cam for a timelapse of the sunrise. I wouldn’t realise until the following afternoon that the footage wasn;t on the camera so I had either failed to set up the camera to shoot or there was a technical failure with the equipment 😦 The sun had yet to appear and I felt no urgency to be up and about so I snapped some photos and fired up the stove for water for a coffee, breakfast and water for the day.
Chris was awake shortly after me and was out and about sooner, taking shots of the impressive frost twinkling like diamonds on the outer of the Stratospire.
Today looked to be even finer than yesterday with hardly a cloud in the sky and still not more than a hint of a breeze.
Chris was ready and off down off the northern side of the summit a good 20 minutes before me again. This repetition makes me sound shoddy but that’s just his way. It didn’t bother me though once I got going I realised I could see him and couldn’t find his footfalls amongst the trails left by the people of the previous afternoon so I set off in the direction that looked best.
As it turned out we took entirely different routes down and though his was longer in length he was still down a good 40 minutes before me. I was a bit hesitant at first on my first crampon-shod descent and picked my way slowly down some very steep sections of frozen snow, ice and rock following the footfalls of some other summiteers ascent. There were points of doubt for me and sections where I had to get a grip on my overactive brain and just get on with it. The appearance of several guys ascending that way in crampons and bearing axes was reassuring in it’s own way. Talking to them helped to calm my nerves as I told them what a fabulous night it had been on the mountain. None of them had seen Chris or anyone else since starting their ascent.
I hate descents more than ascents. They play havok with my knees and thighs. By the time I’d hit the 450m mark my legs were shaky with exhaustion.
My lack of hill fitness was showing itself.
By the 300m mark with less than a km of horizontal distance to the car my knees were giving way and without the aid of my poles I’d have been unable to continue without a good rest but I was aware that Chris was likely waiting as he’d sent me a message a half-hour before saying he was only 30 mins away from the car. I also wanted to get back home at a decent hour to see my family before it was time for bed as I had work the following morning. As it was I had to stop every 100 paces or so for a minute at a time. I’ve had shaky legs before but nothing like that. I felt fine in myself but my legs were refusing to cooperate after 3500ft of downhill pounding.
I arrived back at the road just as Chris pulled up at the base of the path in the car. He’d had time to change and get a tea from a butty van up the road. He had a very welcome cup of tea waiting for me too.
Boy was I glad to be sat down in the comfort of the car.
It had been a fantastic trip. One of the best.
Here is a link to my film of the trip (due to Copyright on the audio you may not be able to watch the film on a Mobile/tablet device): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTK3frMFPSg