The Downhill Mountaineering Club

Part two of my Glencoul odyssey

Eas a' Chual Aluinn or a lot of water falling over a cliff. photo Paul Sammonds

Eas a’ Chual Aluinn or a lot of water falling over a cliff. photo Paul Sammonds

Sometimes you know in advance that things are not going to go your way.  My plan is to walk around the coast, out of Gelncoul bothy and hitch five miles back to my car.  That way I will have achieved something fairly unique in a mountaineering trip, I’ll end up lower than where I started.  Normally in hillwalking you go upwards, it’s sort of the done thing.  Overall, however, I’ll be descending, I might start a trend, perhaps I’ll start The Downhill Mountaineering Club.    I left my car on the hill road that heads over the pass and down towards the bridge at  Kyelesku, and now, by coming over the hill, I’ve descended to sea level and I can walk out to the road from here, hitch across the bridge to my car and, overall, I’ll have lost more height than I gain.   “Simples,” as the Meer Kat says, but I am filled with foreboding.  You see there’s a sign on the far side of the river, in the direction I want to travel, but it’s too far away for me to read it.  I’m going to have to wade the river to get the path on the far side, then I’ll be able to read the sign.  As the water fills my boots the sign gets closer but it’s still too far for me to read.  I emerge on the far bank of the river, soaked from the knees down.


Now, see if you can guess, is there a red dot?  What do you think?

Of course there’s a bloody red dot.

I ponder for a while.  Do they mean it, is the estate shooting, should I risk it?  Will I enrage the land owner? Do I care?  Will I get shot?

Is the whole thing a trap?  I scan the heather nervously.  Even now I could be in the cross hairs of the sights of His Lordship’s 303.  “If he passes that sign McTavish I’ve got him!”  whispers the master of all he surveys from his tweed clad hide out to the grey whiskered ghillie lying beside him, armpit deep in heather.

McTavish, takes another nip of whisky from his flask, “Well, I was thinking Milord, you could shoot him now and we could, erm, move the sign afterwards.”

“Good God man that wouldn’t be very sporting would it?” bristles the aged aristocrat, “Not a bad idea though.  I’ve not bagged a hill walker in ages,” his trigger finger twitches in anticipation.

I do have an alternative I can go back the way I came, over the hill and back to my car.  The thought does not appeal.  Last night I was snug and warm in the bothy burning the coal I so painfully carried in.  Recently I’ve stumbled across a nice little invention, you can buy a whole night’s fire in one bag.   A Fire in a Bag, as the marketing men so ingeniously termed it, is just that, a little sack of smokeless fuel that sits handily in your rucksack reminding you, by its weight, with every step, that it’s there.  Despite the fact that it weighs several kilogrammes it does exactly what it says on the tin and I’ve never spent a cold in night in a bothy after carrying in one of these little packs of cosiness.  Last night, as I sat watching the glowing embers in Glencoul bothy, occasionally the little cottage would shudder as it was struck by a squall of wind and hard driven rain.  At these moments the fire would flame higher as the gusts fed the flames and I would shudder,  thinking what it must be like at that moment, high on the hill path I had followed to the bothy, exposed to all the fury of the weather.  I’d take another sip of whisky and feel happy in the thought that I would not have to walk that way in the morning.  Such pride, however, oft proceeds a fall and I was now coming to terms with the fact that I would have to haul myself once more, mercifully minus coal, back over the hill.

As I trudged back through the river I did wonder if it would have been too much trouble to put the sign on the bothy side of the river. I know I’m going to get wet, there’s no doubt about that, but I would have liked to have put it off by and hour or so.  I head back across the sodden ground, grateful that I burnt the coal last night.  Even in the daylight it’s hard to follow the track, sometimes I’m on deer tracks and sometimes I’m on nothing but my imagination, the only boot prints I find are my own.  The river has risen during the night and looks even more menacing than it did the night before, crossing it is going to be interesting as they say in climbing circles.

A couple of miles up the glen something remarkable happens, I see a strange creature moving towards me down the glen.  Staring through the rain and mist I think I my eyes must be playing tricks, but no, there’s movement and suddenly I can see it plainly.  The strangest thing of all is heading towards me in this remote place, it’s a man.  He doesn’t look right in this place, as if he shouldn’t be here.  He spots me and we meet beside a water fall.  It’s odd how similar we are, two men carrying packs covered with rain cowls leaning on sticks in the middle of nowhere.  We talk for a while and it’s nice to be able to communicate with a fellow homo sapiens, it’s the only company I’ve had for a few days, the deer are fine but there conversation is limited.  He is an American from North Carolina, he tells me from beneath his hood as the rain drips from his beard.  He has walked through Ireland and is now heading for Cape Wrath having set off from Glasgow a couple of weeks ago.  It strikes me how perplexing life can be, bizarre that a man all the way from the USA is here in this rain soaked glen.  “It always rains,” he tells me, looking back with despair over his days trudging through the Highlands, “it’s just a question of how much.  It’s okay when there’s a track but this stuff,” he says, prodding the deep moss and saturated ground we are standing on, “is hard going, dead slow.”  I nod sagely and we part after a handshake.  Joe, he said his name was, as he held out a wet, warm hand.

I should mention the fact that Joe and I met beneath Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, the highest waterfall in Britain, full of spate water, it roared over the cliffs some six hundred feet above us.  I’d like to say I was awe struck by the sight, that it imbued in me sensations of wonder at its wildness and majestic beauty.  Unfortunately it inspired none of these things, at that moment it was just water, and that was everywhere.  The only thought that passed through my mind was that I would have to cross the rivers that fed it.  Such are the practical musings of one who, rather than viewing the scenerty from afar, is literally immersed in it.

I won’t bore you with my adventures crossing the hill back to my stoic little Skoda waiting patiently for me at the roadside.  Suffice it to say it was every bit as grim as I’d imagined as I sat beside the bothy fire the night before. I waded knee deep through several swollen rivers.  Unless I’m certain I can make it across boulders I tend to wade.  If I wade I’ll get wet but boulder hopping, alone, with a pack, in such a remote place carries with it the risk of a slip and a twisted ankle or worse.  Wet boots are a nuisance but they won’t kill you.  I’m blessed with indestructible feet and even saturated blisters are never a problem.

I made it back to my car just as the November light was fading.  “Soaking wet again,” I mused as I peeled off layers of sodden clothes.  Soon I was speeding back across the empty roads of Sutherland, warm and dry and fresh clothes, watching the wipers scatter the sleet from the windscreen and looking out at the outlines of hills, huge and desolate as darkness fell.  I decided I’d have chips in Ullapool, I think I’ve earned them.

As the lights of the village came into view, welcoming and glowing with warmth, my thoughts turned again to my chance encounter in the glen, “I wonder where you are now, Joe from North Carolina.”

14 responses to “The Downhill Mountaineering Club

  1. Enjoyed that. Great to meet you the other night at Inver Mallie bothy. It’s always good to share the bothy fire with a new face.

  2. I love reading your stories in the warm comfort of my home 😉 They’re evocative and so interesting. Did you tell Joe about your writing? Would be fun if he let us know how he got on.
    It was very satisfying to read that you made the good decision to get some chips after that adventure. You did most certainly earn it 🙂

  3. I wonder how well policed the shooting areas are. When I was training for the London Marathon a few years back one of my longish runs took me past a large area of dense woodland used for pheasant shooting. As I approached a spotter would notice me coming (it was a road I was running on after all), blow his whistle, and the guns would fall silent. I always hoped, fingers crossed, that every gun-slinger would have heard the whistle. When I reached the end of the wood, another whistle would sound and WW2 would break out all over again.

    • I was reading up on the Cape Wrath Trail on the web a while ago and stumbled across Cotton Joe and the International Appalachian Trail concept. Reading your post jogged my memory! Looks like he made it to Cape Wrath!

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