A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 

 

Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.

 

“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.

 

We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.

 

As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.

 

‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.

 

“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.

 


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.

 

We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.

 

The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.

 

Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)

 

Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.

 

It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.


This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.

 

We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.

  

Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

 
It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

 
It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 

 

On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

 
I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  

  

  

  

  

Gettaway to Glen Affric

Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.

  As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.

 

Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.

 I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?).  Eventually I found him in bed

It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.

The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.

 

 My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.

“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”

 

 Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”.  But it was no where to be found.

 

Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
 It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit   and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.

 

 The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.

 

“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.

 

Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.

 

A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen  and back to the hostel had taken him  45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
 By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended  to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.

 

But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.

 This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…

  ….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge