Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Tops & Tailwinds - Coast to Coast via Scotland's Highest Peaks


As well as being an adventure, this trip was a fundraiser for the John Muir Award. See my previous post on the subject for details of what the award entails.

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Tops & Tailwinds: Coast to Coast via Scotland's Highest Mountains from david hine on Vimeo.

Coast to Coast

'Coast to Coast' is a classic challenge for Packrafting in Scotland and there have been a number of iterations of the route over the past five years. A common factor among route variations is always a direction of travel running West to East and for two key reasons this is the sensible approach. Firstly, due the location of the watershed in the west of the country, the longer rivers (navigable over a number of days) flow out to the East coast, with the rivers flowing out west tending to be shorter, steeper and with a higher class of whitewater to contend with. Then there is the wind, which is a major factor in determining your speed, as well as your level of frustration, when paddling on 'flat' water. Visitors to Scotland could be forgiven for thinking the wind to be so utterly capricious as to defy all predictions, so often and completely does it seem to change direction. However, the prevailing winds in Scotland (as in the UK as a whole) are Southwesterly. So for the best chance of having the wind at your back, you would do well to plan a route heading Northeast (or at least to the east). 

A few years ago I posted a report from my previous coast to coast packrafting trip. But that route was a lacklustre affair by comparison with the more ambitious route David Lintern and I set out to attempt on May 9th this year. This route was a bucket list item for me and, although it was certainly hard in places, it was a great trip which I now remember as one of my favourites.

The Plan

Our intention for this trip was to travel coast to coast, beginning at the western point of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and finishing at Spey Bay. In addition to this we planned to climb all of Scotland's 4000 foot peaks, of which there are nine (four being in Lochaber, clustered above Glen Nevis, and five being in the Cairngorms on plateaus to the east and west of the Lairig Ghru). Our packrafts were to carry us on both fresh and salt water lochs, as well as on rivers, for approximately a third of the distance.

In the fortnight approaching our departure, I certainly felt unsure of the tenability of our plan (given the late and extremely heavy snow falls seen on the high peaks) and admittedly nervous about some of the crux points along our route. So it's very pleasing that we came through to the end of the trip with remarkably little compromise in terms of our objectives being met. However, we were chased down from the  ridge of the western Cairngorms by the weather and as a result summitted only seven of the nine targeted peaks.


The Trip

I think of this trip as having really begun at Sanna Bay on the West Coast, although on the first day we did hike out to Point of Ardnamurchan (which is generally regarded as the western extent of the British mainland). Sanna Bay is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, with views out in the direction of the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck. Although on the afternoon we arrived we were treated to glowing sunshine, as our route took us inland, along the rough and boggy coast of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, we were pounded with rain and were completely soaked by the time we arrived at Loch Shiel (to be our first waterborne stretch of the trip).

Plans for packrafting on 'flat' water are often upset by the vagaries of the wind. Packrafters are uniquely fussy when it comes to the wind; there is often too much or too little, and frequently it blows in the 'wrong' direction. We mostly lucked out on this trip in terms of wind, and the majority of the time we had the 'right' strength in the 'right' direction. On Loch Shiel, we had a determined southwesterly on our tails and this made for roaring progress up that wild and beautiful loch. After a memorable flow into Glenfinnan, we made a short portage to the sea-loch of Loch Eil to continue our progress towards  the Lochaber tops. Loch Eil is oriented differently to Loch Shiel, and a Southwesterly wind was no-long convenient.  Miraculously, the wind changed direction to suit us and our boats flew up the loch with Northerly tails.

Our approaches to the first two of the four targeted Lochaber peaks were made over the course of two sun-filled days of  sun-cream and far reaching views. The arete which joins the peaks of Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis was still decidedly wintry, so the peaks were climbed separately rather than over a single day as had been the plan.  
The evening between the two ascents was spent in the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut in Corrie Leis, below the magnificent north face of Ben Nevis (the place is legendary among aficionados of Scottish Mountaineering).

An abrupt drop in ambient air pressure saw a complete turnabout in the conditions we went on to find on our climbs of Aonach mor and Aonach Beag (the final two of the 4 targeted peaks above Glen Nevis). Visibility was near zero and precipitation was high, so after two successful summits I was extremely glad to be back in the glen at the end of the day and making tracks for the Meanach Bothy a few hours walk to the south. Waiting for us at the bothy we found just enough wood for a fire, and the last of our first batch of single malt was spent on celebrating success on the Lochaber tops.

The next two showery and blustery days were spent traversing what felt like the trip's middle ground and saw us arriving at Dalwhinnie for a welcome shower and resupply. Again, the wind was favourble to our progress by water and we paddled the length of lochs Ossian and Ericht as well as trudging across a couple of less than inspiring hill tracks and slopping through a considerable mileage of bog.

From Dalwhinnie our route took us into the Cairngorms over the course of a day, and over the course of the of the following two days across the high plateaus to the east and west of the Lairig Ghru. On the Western Plateau it looked as if our plans were becoming unstuck. After summitting Braeriach in increasingly threatening conditions and partial whiteout, we bailed the ridge and headed for Glen Geusachan as an escape route from the high ground. In the Corrour bothy that night, we licked our wounds and considered our options in the event that the following morning should also have dawned foul. 

As it happened, the following morning cast a more favourable light on our intention to take on the tops of Ben Macdui and Cairngorm. We were concerned about the high wind in the glen, and as we climbed the boulder fields to the south of Allt Clach nan Taillear our big packs caught the stronger gusts uncomfortably. But as we reached the plateau on approach to the Summit of Ben Macdui, we were relieved to find the wind manageable and it continued to drop throughout the day as the weather generally improved and allowed us expansive views in all directions. We were joined for the day's walking by Bjorn, a German backpacker we'd met in Corrour Bothy and he was great company. After descending to the Saddle between Cairngorm and Bynack Mor, we dropped further down to camp beside the Fords of Avon Refuge beneath the beautiful Loch Avon. 

The refuge is at an altitude of about 700 meters and it would be downhill to the coast from that point on as we set off walking down the twists of Glen Avon. The upper river Avon will be fit for some challenging Sport Boating in places at another time (a sustained class three with flashes of four and five). But with big packs on our backs, we walked the distance down the Glen to be rewarded with fortifying pints of Caledonian Best in the pub at Tomintoul before taking to the water the following day to paddle the Avon out to the Spey. As it happened, we made pretty slow progress down the Avon, there being a need for much scouting ahead and the portage of spookier stretches of white water. But we had a great run on the river until we decided to deflate the boats and walk the remainder of the way to the Spey in order to save ourselves some time and make it to the river that  same evening. The last two days of the trip were spent paddling the familiar waters of the river Spey as it meandered eastwards to Spey Bay, and to the end of our journey.

The route had taken us 15 days to complete. We camped for the majority of nights, but used bothies on four occasions and had one night in a bunkhouse. There is good reason for the coast to coast challenge to have become a classic for Packrafting in Scotland, and I fully expect to hear about more similar trips in the future.

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