After spending three separate days in the hills with cadets from Ellesmere College CCF, the last three have been spent on an expedition. Each year, these expeditions try to give the cadets the opportunity to tackle mountains that most people wouldn’t attempt due to their remoteness. By allowing three days, it gives them a day to walk in, a day to make their ascent and a final day to walk out. The Scottish Highlands are remote enough for most people but, by picking these isolated peaks, they truly get a sense of being self reliant – they have little choice! This year, all four walking groups headed for Ruadh Stac Mor and A Mhaighdean, which are well known for their beauty and claimed by some to be the remotest of Scotland’s 283 Munros.
After spending a several hours getting everyone prepared, and trying to encourage them to pack things in their rucksacks rather than on the outside, we were dropped by minibus on Wednesday morning at Poolewe. We were welcomed by surprisingly strong sunshine and warmth, which seemed a bizarre contrast to Tuesday’s snow and blizzards. However, the sun remained making for a wonderfully relaxed walk in surrounded by rocky snow-capped mountains rising out of the low lying grass and bog.
The route was fairly straight forward, so we decided to allow the groups a bit of freedom from adult input and set them off on their own. Huw, Ranjit and I started off shadowing the rear group, but soon found ourselves frustrated by the slow progress so decided to keep an eye on them from the front. Even then, we were surprised by how long it took the rear group to catch us up. Later it transpired that one of the group had dropped a tent and, by the time anyone realised, had a 3km round trip to retrieve it. One good reason for avoiding strapping things to the outside of your rucksack!
Our target for the night was the bothy at Carnmore. Although little more than a disused cattle shed at the south east end of Fionn Loch, it can be a real saviour for those staggering off the mountains in the dark after a longer than expected epic with nature. However, it does seem slightly strange that this basic level of accommodation, although most welcome, should be situated right next to plush looking hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. I have little doubt that it offers an incredible venue from which to stalk the deer but, so far, I’ve never seem anyone in it.
As we prepared dinner outside our tents (saving the space inside the bothy for anyone that might be in greater need), we were graced with blue skies and more stunning views in all directions. With the moon hanging over it, the view towards A Mhaighdean was particularly inspiring, particularly with it being our planned target fro the morning.
By the time morning came, the cloud and rain had arrived – perhaps responsible for creating two distinct groups in the party. There were those that were mentally geared up for the ascent of these two remote Munros, and those that had set their hearts on the relatively low level walk to another bothy at Shenavall, to the south east of Loch na Sealga. In the end, Ian and I found ourselves starting out on the low level route. As you might expect, this group was made up of those with aches and pains incurred during the week to date, as well as those that simply didn’t want to find the energy for another big day. Consequently, the going was rather slow again, but I was impressed by the way they kept going and stuck together.
One of the great treats about being in such remote areas is that the wildlife often shows little fear of people. The deer were certainly a little wary, but we got some great pictures of them checking us out.
One detail we had ‘neglected’ to tell the group about this leg of the journey was that there was a river in the way. Ian and I waited at Larachantivore for the group to catch us up, before we broke the good news. While we were explaining different methods of crossing rivers, and discussing the options of how to keep either your boots or socks dry (unfortunately not both), some seemed to think it was all a big wind up. They were soon to be disappointed.
When it came to it, and the penny finally dropped that this was for real, it was interesting to see different people’s priorities when it came to keeping things dry. Some were tempted to just go for it in whatever they had on, some crossed in socks, some saved their socks and crossed in boots, while others would probably have gone across naked if we’d let them! Whatever option we took, we all got very cold from the volume of meltwater coming off the mountains after the recent snowfall.
Once across the river, it was only another kilometer to Shenavall where we were able to take time to dry out, relax and wait for the Munroists to complete their epic. They finally staggered in about 4 hours after us, looking tired but full of the satisfaction of a successful day.
A good night’s sleep and the promise of a relatively short walk out (only about 7km), seemed to spur everyone on to get cracking this morning. This final section from Shenavall to Dundonnell is simple enough, although you do need to keep an eye on the map as the ‘path’ disappears regularly during the first 3km or so. After 3 days of carrying big expedition rucksacks, there seemed to be a great deal of jubilation when we got back to some resemblance of civilisation, with the promise of showers, toilets, sofas, beds and plenty of time to share stories and experiences of their adventures in the ‘wilds’ of Scotland.
Some say they have found the last three days little more than a test of endurance, while others site a number of specific things they have learnt about themselves and others. To be honest I have little doubt that, for each and every one, they will remember this experience for many years and drawer strength and encouragement from their experiences. Well done to everyone!