It was a classic case of what can go wrong when you’re attempting to climb a Munro, in this instance, Beinn a’Chachair.
We’d spent much of the previous day of glorious weather in the car, driving to the camp site at Roy Bridge, and then getting settled in. Even at 9 pm it was sunny, warm and calm, when we checked the weather forecast for the next day. It said fair at first, becoming cloudy with possible rain patches later, and strong winds, especially high up. Hard to believe, as we sat in a cloudless evening, watching the sun go down.
The next day, the weather appeared quite good, so we set off on the track south from the car park on the A86 near Luiblea. As can be seen from the photo above, taken from the stalker path near the base of Beinn a’Chlachair, our target for the day, conditions were fine. Maybe the forecast wasn’t entirely correct.
We watched some youngsters on quad bikes enjoying their outing, further down, and looked up at Beinn a’Chlachair.
It looked OK, with a wee bit of cloud at the top, and it was still dry. There was no-one else on the way up to the hill, and we decided to continue.
Further up, the mist started to come in, but on a couple of occasions the top cleared, so we walked on, had a snack, and left the track as per route directions: “The ground ahead is boggy in places; make a bee-line across it to the south. Beyond climb the initially very steep slopes ahead, bearing a little to the right to reach the eastern rim of Coire Mor Chlachair higher up.”
We could see there was a strong wind blowing the mist over the col which was now to our left, and so we put on our waterproof tops, gloves and hats and continued until we reached the ridge leading to the summit, which was somewhere to our right. What a wind! Unless you’ve been in the mountains in such conditions, or have experienced a hurricane, you can’t imagine what it was like. It was difficult to stand up.
We couldn’t find any path, but staggered on a little. Every now and then it cleared a wee bit, but we couldn’t see any cairn. The ground was very difficult, consisting of irregular stones, and we kept tripping up.
We had a printed OS map, the top of which, sticking out of my pocket, began to shred in the wind. We had a compass in the rucksack. We were also using an online OS map app for the first time, which Lindsey had downloaded onto her phone at the campsite Wi-Fi. I was, very fortunately as it turned out, also tracking our route using ViewRanger on my phone. It was the first time I’d used ViewRanger.
Having got thus far, it’s difficult to turn back without reaching the top, so we tripped and staggered on a bit, in the wind. The cairn had to be somewhere close, but visibility was down to about 10 yards. The summit plateau of Beinn a’Chlachair, we knew, is quite flat and extensive. I thought I saw a bit of a path leading to something for a couple of seconds, so we changed direction a bit and headed on. The cairn wasn’t there. The same thing happened again. As we stopped to check the OS map on Lindsey’s phone, the wind blew a flap of her jacket onto the screen and closed the app. When she restarted it, the map wasn’t there anymore, only a cursor on a blank screen.
I looked up, and said to Lindsey “I’m disorientated. We’ve changed direction too many times, this is serious. Forget about the top. Which way do you think is down?” Lindsey had no more idea than I did. We both knew that there were cliffs somewhere near, around the Coire Mor Chlachair, and also some crags on the south side near the top, so we had to try to retrace our steps. We were now getting wet, cold and tired. My spectacles were steamed up on both the inside and outside, and I could hardly see anything. I had to pull my hat down to stop them blowing away. Not that there was anything to see, in the mist. The wind seemed to be getting even stronger. When I took my glove off to tap my phone, it was so damp that I couldn’t get it back on again – (mental note: wrong type of summer glove for these conditions).
Anyway, it would have been impossible in those conditions to get the printed OS map out, so we looked at my phone, and thank goodness for the route tracker on ViewRanger – we could see our route up, marked in red. We grabbed each other, staggered a few metres in no particular direction and looked at the phone once more – we could see that we were more or less retracing our steps. So we continued doing this again and again, looking at the phone every few minutes. You can see our track on the screen-dump below.
It staggers around a bit, doesn’t it? The route up is, from the top, to the left. You can also see that we missed the summit! The grey line with triangular points on it marks some of the crags. ViewRanger tells me that we reached max elevation 1,065 and if that is accurate, we had still 22m ascent still to go.
I can’t tell from the route tracker exactly where, but a few minutes later we had left the summit plateau and began to descend when Lindsey tripped slightly and was blown completely off her feet by the wind, landing a bit below on some heather. She’d twisted her ankle, quite badly as it turned out later, but using both her stick and mine we were able to eventually get off the mountain and onto the stalker path below the col. Fortunately this is a reasonable path, and the track further down is in very good condition due to being maintained by the quad bike rental company in Roy Bridge. It was slow progress until we got back to the road.
The moral of this post is clear. We are too old to do this sort of thing in those conditions anymore, and should have quit at least twenty minutes before we did.