Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Lost Valley

With it being the middle of Winter in Scotland and as fate would have it there was a biting cold wind blowing from the Arctic. Would you:
A) Immediately book an all inclusive trip to the Carribean, leaving in one hour.
B) Sit in the house, with the heating on, watching your favourite episodes of Star Trek.
C) Go camping to Glencoe with two of your mates who also have had their common sense glands removed!

Those of you who answered "B" are allowed another go!

That's right. We were off to Glencoe to camp in the "Lost Valley" on an adventure that was originally aranged to take place in December, but due to circumstance had been postponed from the begining of Winter until slap, bang in the middle of it!

Jim was due to pick me up from the house at 6.00, therefore I was ready to go, bang on 6.40! We drove over to Partick to collect Thomas and were ready to head North by 7.30. Thomas switched on his Tom Tom Sat nav and things startred to go wrong. Unfortunately, the Tom Tom obviously had suicidal tendencies and was intent on taking us down with it as it continually tried to send us down one way streets and into oncoming traffic. Eventually Thomas switched it off as Hypothermia was the prefered option of death this weekend!

We had a good long chat on the two and a half hour journey and caught up with all the gossip, of which there was much! Around 10.00, we were at Glencoe and desperately trying to find the bunkhouse which was our overnight accomodation before we roughed it the next day. The pub would be closing in a little over two hours and there was a considerable amount of binge drinking to be done so speed was of the essence!

We eventually found the place. The Hilton, it wasn't. It consisted of a long table for you to eat your meals, a row of large alcoves to put your rucksacks and other equipment and a structure at one side that touched the ceiling that had individual compartments with matresses to sleep on. The only available sleeping space was a large compartment that would sleep three or four people, at the very top, some twenty feet off the ground. This was going to be interesting when we came back minging from the pub later on and had to climb up the ladders. I began to wonder if that was why there were all the climbing ropes hanging from the walls, just so that you could get into bed!

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A good head for heights was needed in order to get a good night's sleep!

We dumped our stuff and set off to pub, The Clachaig Inn We arrived fifteen minutes later and made our way through the bar which was packed full of people who had obviously been enjoying the liquid refreshment for several hours by now. We were lucky enough to find an empty table in a side room and sat down with our beers. The pub was filled with people who by their builds were obviously seasoned rock climbers and very fit. Even the bar maid looked as though she could have beaten me to death with one finger and her eyes shut.

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Binge drinking in the Clachaig Inn

There was a folk singer in the main bar who didn't seem to know too many songs but what he lacked in variety, he made up for in volume as he belted out the tunes and the drunken crowd lapped it up while they sang and danced along to his repitiore.

We drank as quickly as we could, but all too soon they were shouting last orders at the bar. As a last hurrah, I ordered six double vodkas and coke and three beers as a night cap. The punters were leaving quickly as the bar staff made it clear they wanted to get us out by shouting at everyone to finish up and move outside. By 12.15 Jim, Thomas and I were the last men standing and as if we needed anymore encouragement to vacate the premises, the barstaff turned off the lights. Highland hospitality, indeed!

We staggered back to the bunkhouse to find all the sleeping areas alredy full with the people who had left the pub thirty minutes before us. Luckily we had claimed our sleeping areas by leaving our sleeping bags on the matress. We undressed quietly. Well as quite as you can when you are a bit pished and climbed the ladders of doom to the sleeping area. Luckily there were no mishaps and we snuggled into our sleeping bags to get some shut eye. For me, sleep came quickly and Jim confirmed this the next morning by informing me that I was snoring within 5 seconds.

We awoke the next morning around 9.00 to the sound of the rest the inhabitants of the bunkhouse cooking their breakfast. I was desperate for a pee, but unfortunately I only had my boxers on, and being a bit of a morning person I was unable to leave my sleeping bag for about 15 minutes. When it was safe to do so, I scrambled down the ladder and quickly put my trousers on.

It was a very odd group of people, with no-one making eye contact or chatting to each other, therefore we left as quickly as we could. We drove into Glencoe village to buy the supplies we would need to survive the overnight camping and then headed off to find a place to park the car and begin the walk.

Unfortunately, there were no places to park the car as, even at this time of year walkers and climbers were out in force, only one group of campers though and that would be because it was probably a dumb idea to go camping in the Highlands in the Winter!

Anyway, the guys dumped all our gear out of the car and drove back to find a safe place to abandon the car, leaving me to soak up the view and freeze my nuts off. It really was bitterly cold and this was before we had even began the ascent into the hills. Luckily, Thomas had brought a spare puffy jacket with him which I gratefuly borrowed. Now that I am working again I will need to invest in some new equipment for myself.

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Waiting for Jim & Thomas to arrive

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Not many car parks have a view like this...

The guys arrived back about 45 minutes later and we set off. There was a path to follow so initially it wasn't too hard going. However, about 30 minutes into the climb and the weight of rucksacks, tents, clothes and food being hauled up the steep incline began to take its toll. Thermal hats and gloves were removed, jackets unzipped and despite the biting cold, beads of sweat appeared on our faces.

We were becoming more and more isolated from civilization, there was no-one else to be seen, the bars disappeared from our mobile phones and eventually we were alone. About an hour into the climb and we getting close to our destination. Thomas was familiar with where were going since he had been here with Liam last year on an overnight camp and he led the way.

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The view as we approached the campsite

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Luckily, the supports on this bridge were recently reinforced!

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Jim and Thomas march on.

We eventually reached Coire Gabhail AKA the Lost Valley at exactly midday and I had to take my woolie hat off to Thomas, it really was the ideal place to camp. It was absolutely stunning and was in an ideal position to be the base camp before we attempted the planned climb of Bidean nan Bian the following morning.

We put the tents up as quickly as we could and stowed our gear away. Even though we were busy it was hard to escape the bitter cold and so we knew we would need to gather as much fire wood as we could and get a fire going before night fall, in an attempt to keep warm. Anyway, you cannot go camping and not have a fire. It just wouldn't be right!

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The boys erecting the tents on Brokeback Mountain!

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The view back down the valley

We gathered any branches that were lying around, but unfortunately there were not very many to be found and with no holiday homes around with a ready cut supply of timber for me to procure (i.e. Rowerdennan), things looked bleak. There were a couple of dead trees nearby that would of been perfect to burn, but were just too big to drag over to the fire.

I should have known better. Thomas, ceremoniously produced a saw from his rucksack and half an hour of hilarity ensued as we sawed, kicked and jumped on the tree as it stubournly refused to give up its branches without a fight. Eventually we won and the tree lost and a decent supply of fire wood lay in a pile waiting to be incinerated.

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Eco-warrior, Thomas recycles a tree!

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Jim, valliantly tries to sunbathe while lying inside his tent, wearing all his clothes AND a silly hat!

There was nothing to do now except relax and enjoy the scenery so we made some food and sat around chatting. There was a huge boulder right beside where we had pitched our tents which was acting as a wind break. Despite the fact that it was some 10 metres high and the fact that I suffer from vertigo I decided to climb it and posed gingerly on top for pictures before carefully returning to Terra Firma.

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Me, on top of a large stone

Thomas had a go next and like me, discovered that it is always easier to climb up someting than to climb down again!

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Thomas decides to climb the mini Munro.....

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...but upon trying to descend, wishes he had just listened to a CD by Matt Munro instead!

As the day progressed there were more and more hillwalkers returning from the Munro above. Not the amateurs like us, these people were the real deal with Ice Axes, Crampons and climbing ropes. One guy even had a set of skis on his back! Ski-ing down the hill is just showing off in my opinion!

We shouted hello to each and everyone of them and I made a point of asking them what the climbing conditions were like since we had no proper equipment except the boots on our feet. Everyone of them advised us not to attempt the climb and I could sense that first, Jim and then Thomas were rapidly going off the idea of an early morning climb the following day. One fella suggested that it depended how "gallus" we were feeling. I'm always gallus, so I decided that if the guys wern't up for it then I would do it myself.

However, just in case I didn't get to climb the Munro, I decided to have a climb as far up the side of the valley as I could go. The guys were trying, without very much success to light the fire with twigs, tampons and alcohol hand rub. So I left the stench of testosterone and made my way up the very steep hill to see how far I could climb. Twenty minutes later, I was a high up as I could safely go and looking down from on high at our campsite I could see a reassuring orange glow coming from the now lit fire. Well done Jim and Thomas!

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The view from higher up in the valley

I was just about to start scrambling back down when something caught my eye in the distance. A herd of wild deer were crossing the valley floor right behind the large boulder that Thomas and I had climbed earlier on. The guys were only about 20 metres away from them but because of the boulder they did not even notice that Bambi and co. were sauntering past them.

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Nature in the raw. I think there was about 10 of them, but I really have no i-deer!

I watched them from my vantage point for about 10 minutes before scrambling down the side of the hill to rejoin Jim and Thomas. They had indeed not even noticed our furry friends and seemed a lot less excited about it than I was! Arseholes!

Anyway, the light was fading now and the temperature was noticably colder. Thomas and I collected some drinking water from a mountain stream to last us through the night and we gathered round the fire, which Jim had done a great job of coaxing into life. It was time to make some food before the light disappeared and crack open the drinks. Jim had his usual vodka and coke, Thomas had a hip flask of Port and I had a hip flask topped up with Southern Comfort.

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We attempt to keep the fire going

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Darkness falls as we gather round the meagre fire

As the night went on and darkness descended, the temperature plummeted. There was the occasional flurry of snow which luckily never came to much but for the most part the sky was cloudless, revealling a blanket of stars that you can only see when you are miles away from the Towns or Cities. I wish I had been able to record it in a picture but alas, my camera isn't that good.

We hudddled round the fire with our hands literally inches away from the flames but it was so cold we couldn't even feel the heat. The constantly changing wind direction made it impossible to stay in the one place for very long as smoke kept blowing into our faces and it wasn't long before we decided to retreat into my tent to try and stay warm.

We chatted until around 10.30 and slugged away at our hip flasks, however the best idea seemed to be to go to sleep and hope that this would be a quick night, and after I spilled my mug of Southern Comfort inside the tent the party was over! Thomas departed first and Jim and I were ready to crash out soon after. I prepared to try to get some shut eye by slipping an extra pair of socks. I was now wearing three pair of thermal socks, two pairs of trousers, three tops, a fleece AND my woolie hat inside my sleeping bag and I was still shivering! It was easily -10 degrees I reckon, or at least it felt that way !

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Yes, it really is as cold as it looks!

I had, what was by far the worst night's sleep ever. I kept waking up chittering away all through the night and even had to put the puffy jacket over my feet at one point, but they were still numb. I desperately needed to pee but couldn't face going out into the cold. When, daylight started to filter through the canvas of the tent I knew that the end of this torture was near.

At 7.30 I was out of the tent doing what only bears are supposed to do in the woods and desperately trying to heat up. I decided that the best idea would be to do for a brisk walk and so despite the advice from all the experienced, well equiped walkers and climbers the previous day, I decided that I would see how far I could get up Bidean nan Bian. Yep, I was feeling gallus this morning!

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Day breaks over the Lost Valley

I didn't even wait to have some breakfast and set off immediately. There was a clear path up the Munro which I followed. However, the path was becoming gradually more steep and there were increasing amounts of ice making it treacherous underfoot. The higher I went, the deeper the snow became and after 30 minutes of walking and sliding I decided that I had probably come as far as it was sane to do so.

I took a couple of pictures and decided that if I tried to scramble up the side of the hill, off of the path for about 100 feet then I would be able to get a really dramatic picture. I started to ascend the consolidated snow by digging the side of my boots in and scrambling upwards. After about a 30 feet climb I looked back at the way I had come and nearly filled my pants. It suddenly dawned on me that I was way out of my depth and not in a very safe position at all.

I realised that if I slipped here it would have been an icy death at the bottom of the valley several hundred feet below and I am not exagarating. I tried to retrace my steps but lost my footing and I had to grab a rock to stop myself, which is why all the climbers the previous day had Ice Axes and Crampons. D'Oh!
I had the feeling in my stomach that I have not had for a few years and the last time I had it was when I was absailing off a hotel in Glasgow. It's the feeling that you really aren't in control of your own destiny and the real fear that you could very well die. It's not a nice feeling!

Fortunately, I made it back to the path safely and after sitting down for 10 minutes and telling myself that I was an arsehole, I decided it was time to return to the campsite.

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8.00 AM on Bidean nan Bian!

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Eyes like piss-holes in the snow, due to three hours sleep, the previous night's drinking and a wee touch of hypothermia!

As I clambered gingerly down th path I could see Thomas away in the distance and when I finally met him at the bottom of the path he commented that it was quite possible that the red jacket was visible from space. I filled him in on my adventure and many jokes were made throughout the rest of the day about, Crampons, Ice Axes and consolidated snow. I was just glad to be alive!

On returning to the campsite, Jim had been a trouper and had dismantled my tent and was packing it away for me. I was famished by now and so I cracked open a tin of Heinz's Beans and Pork Sausages and lit my stove. Twenty minutes later and after using Thomas' stove my breakfast was still unheated. It was just too cold for the stoves to heat the food and even when I boiled water to make coffee it was only luke warm.

We decided to cut our losses and head for The Drovers Inn for some lunch and a pint. All our gear was packed up and we happily headed for home. It took us just short of two hours to make it back to where the car was parked and it was good to finally get all the layers of clothing off that had been necessary for the last 24 hours.

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Descending the hill

An hours drive later and we were at The Drovers. If you have never been then you really should go. There really isn't any other pub like it in Scotland!

Drinks were ordered and the three of us scoured the menu to see which tasty treats would fill our bellies. We actually ordered both courses to come at the same time as we knew they wouldn't be around long enough to go cold!

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A selection of dead stuffed animals that greets visitors to The Drovers

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Finishing the weekend as we the pub!

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The outside of The Drovers, whose motto is "pub of the year 1705!"

With Haggis and chocolate cake & custard washed down with a pint in my tummy, it was time for us to head for home. The journey was uneventful and all there was to do for a non-driver like myself was enjoy the beautiful scenery.

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Looking North along Loch Lomond

We dropped Thomas off and Jim kindly dropped me off home too. I ran myself a nice hot bath, put on some good music and relaxed, vowing to my self that the next camping trip would be in the Summer or at least when the sun is shinning.

However, I am sure that if you asked me next week, I would be back up that Munro in a flash, only this time I would be wearing my Crampons and swinging my Ice Axe around like a maniac!