A week hiking in Morocco – The Jebel Toubkal Circuit unsupported

About a year ago, my good friend Shirin suggested using this summer for an expedition somewhere exciting, with Nepal top of the list. Unfortunately a combination of logistical issues piled up to make a multi-week long haul expedition look like it was no longer an option. A little over a month ago, weighing up options across Europe, we booked flights to Marrakech and bought a map and guidebook for one of the most challenging 6 day treks within a short-haul flight of the UK.

IMG_1391

Toubkal is Morocco’s and North Africa’s highest mountain and without a doubt the focus for most groups visiting the Toubkal National park in the High Atlas Region – a visit to the 4164m summit can be attempted in a brisk (but potentially altitude sickness inducing) 48hr round trip from Marrakesh.

toubkal route

Myself and Shirin took the road less trod, taking a 6 day clockwise route through five settlements divided by four passes finishing with a Toubkal summit ascent. Many sources on trekking in the area recommend traveling with both a guide and muleteer (to cook and carry food and equipment). This is undoubtably the comfort option, but we were confident enough in our skills and equipment to feel safe moving independently and found information online about others who had happily done the same as us. Indeed, the majority of the small number of groups we came across on the circuit were without a guide, although many had a sturdy mule to lug heavy trekking packs. As we discovered however our option is not for the fainthearted or inexperienced.

Arrival

The first 24hrs of the trip were a whirlwind. We took an afternoon flight from Manchester, arriving a little late in Casablanca resulting in a mad dash through the airport to get our connection which was boarding as we arrived at the gait. After a 50 minute hop to Marrakesh we spent a further three hours queuing in immigration, miraculously found our luggage had also made it to the plane and eventually arrived at our accommodation an inner city Riad (essentially an upmarket B&B in a traditional courtyard house) in the Medina of the city at around 1am. We took an early breakfast (up at 0730) before finding a bank that opened early to exchange our cash to Dirhams as we’d read there were no ATMs on the route. After booking another Riad for our return we jumped in a taxi after a bit of bartering booked out a whole one for 300Dh and headed to the hills.

IMG_1295
Breakfast with Sunrise over Marrakesh

Imlil to Tacheddirt 

Imlil (1740m) is a busy trailhead 2.5hrs from Marrakesh that is starting to develop its trekking economy. Some visitors go there simply to escape the heat of Marrakesh, but the small equipment shops are springing up and there are plenty of hikers about. We stopped briefly for a cold drink before setting out eastwards along a dusty road to  Tacheddirt.

IMG_1302

It didn’t take long for us to discover that our 1:50000 Cordee map was a bit vague to say the least. The road and path headed vaguely in the direction the map suggested but as they were the only path and road and you could see one from another we had no issues following them up through sheltered groves to trees to Tizi n’Tamatert (2279m) . Tizi simply means pass in the local Berber language and this one had a simple Azib (which seems to translate as settlement) selling cold drinks and orange juice which was exceptionally welcome.

IMG_1307

After a drink and a little rest we travelled the valley along for what felt like a very long way until we were directed by some locals down a footpath towards the village of Tacheddirt where we hoped to spent the night in a Gite. After bumping into an enthusiastic local with a bit of french we were pointed towards a Gite where for a reasonable price we got three hot meals and a comfortable although be it basic room to stay in.

IMG_1318
Typical Gite Accomodation in the hills

It turned out we were actually in the village of Ouanesekra which had clearly developed significantly since the area had beens surveyed and was now fairly confluent with the larger settlement of Tacheddirt. Never the less we had some very traditional food including the first of our many vegetable tagines and something which seemed to be a couscous based rice pudding type dish (introduced to use by our host as a “sauce” and as a result I caused much merriment to our host by spooning it all over a pile of my veggies).

IMG_1320

 

Tacheddirt to Azib Likemt

An early morning start took us up the valley to Tacheddirt and we began the long steep ascent of the Tizi Likemt (3555m) pass. Although only 6km on the map, it was extremely hard work tackling the altitude and the scree with a 13kg pack (food, water, tent etc) – I did 30,000 steps this day (which equates to about 18km according to my phone).

IMG_1324IMG_1322

The day was a race against the clouds as we knew by about 2pm there would likely be thunder so we pushed ourselves hard, making the summit just minutes before the first roll of thunder.

We raced away downhill from the storm, eventually stopping for a bit of bread (our staple for the week) and some water half way down. We were alerted to the presence of another person on the hills by some shouting and arm waving beckoning us over and spotted a shepherd making a fire a little way across hill. Although he had virtually no English or French and we had no Berber or Arabic he invited us to join him for a cup of hot “Berber Whiskey” – sweetened tea made with mint from the mountains heated in a pot over an open fire and he shared some bread with us and we some fruit and nuts with him. We had a very enjoyable 20 minutes or so communicating about his flock, the food and his village, Azib Likemt before heading down to the valley where we were to camp that night.

IMG_1345
Shelters and terraces for agriculture, Azib Likemt

We wild camped just on the outskirts of the village although after we were pitched up for a few hours we stuck our head outside the tent to experience the displeasure of the local matriarch who after much gesticulating indicated that we were camped in the middle of the grazing area she used for cows (“ooh lets pitch up on this nice grassy area, it will be comfortable”). After a bit more gesticulating both parties concluded we could stay camped if we paid to camp which we were very happy to do. Azib Likemt was the only settlement without good road access in the area and it superficially at least appeared significantly less wealthy than the others in the area.

Azib Likemt to Amsouzerte

This day was probably my favourite in terms of scenery and enjoyment. It was the right length, temperature and not too miserably steep. The path through the Assif n’Tinzer Valley weaved across the stream keeping it cool and comfortable as shepherds herded their flocks up to pasture while others returned from Amsourzert with mules recently unburdened from trading. Everyone was friendly wishing each other a “Bonjour et ça-va?”.

IMG_1355
Departing the Likment valley past the earthen-walled houses of Azib Tamenzift

Cuteness winner of the holiday goes to the young mother riding a mule across to Amsouzert with her twins in each panier.

IMG_1367

As the valley turned we began to climb more sharply, ascending to the Tizi n’Ououraine pass. We passed a couple of french walkers here who told us the view from the top was fantastic and we were not disappointed.

IMG_1372

The prominent peak at the right of the photo is Toubkal, still some 1000m higher than we were at this pass. Following this we had a long, dusty and wet descent to the village of Tagounite which has recently got its own road.

Feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamilton we attracted the attention we attracted the attention of a gaggle of about 10 of the villages’ girls as we walked along – they spoke good french or at least, as good as mine which made them great to practice with! We fielded a lot of questions about where we were from, where we were going, our ear piercings, how old we were, if we had children and so on and they kindly directed us right through the maze of footpaths in the village to the edge of Amsouzerte (1797m) before with much glee yelling “Au Revoir!” multiple times as loud as they could across the valley as we made our way onto the gite for the night.

IMG_1383

Amsouzerte to Lac D’Ifni

After a very comfortable night at the Gite of Omar Himmini in Amsouzerte (recommended in the Atlas Trekking Guide) and a re-stock of provisions (i.e. more bread and some crisps) we began a steady but extremely warm walk up the valley to the famous Lac D’Ifni.

IMG_1385
Traditional rammed-earth building at Aït Igrane

I struggled a little on this day, whether due to poor nutritional intake (turns out I loose my appetite at altitude) or the altitude itself finally catching up with me so was very happy to reach the Azib selling cold drinks at the pass over into the Lake.

IMG_1396

The lake itself has a beautiful blue-green colour and is very clear. It attracts plenty of day trippers as well as swimmers and people just enjoying a day on its beaches.

Sadly the lake is in need of some good facilities. There were a lot of young moroccans camping with no waste disposal facilities, toilets or advice on what visitors should be doing to be responsible leading to huge amounts of unsanitary waste as well as plastic bottles, old sardine cans and so on. Whilst we had an enjoyable time there unless something is done to improve the infrastructure in the next couple of years I suspect it will become a rather less pleasant place to spend a night or two.

IMG_1424
Camping in a lean-to. Lovely and warm!

Lac D’Ifni to Refugue Toubkal

What a marathon this day was – although enjoyable! After the first 30 minutes or so of walking of the day we could see the pass we were headed for, right in the middle of the photo below. Seeing it over 1000m metres above me I was very glad to have taken a dose of Acetazolemide to prevent altitude sickness!

IMG_1431.jpg

Tizi N’Ouanoums (3684m) got very slowly closer as we passed a lot of groups headed the other way with the support of a mule having a night or two down at Lac D’Ifni.

IMG_1433
Wildflowers in the valley

The weather started to turn as we reached the top and I was left shall we say, a little windswept (that and mildly euphoric from getting to the top and the altitude induced hypoxia).

IMG_1455

Despite it being august, and 38C in Marrakech, the weather turned quickly in the hills. We had a very large volume of hail followed by rain and got cold pretty quickly on the way down the pass on the other side. The Toubkal path even appeared to have some snow on it from the distance we were at.  Being cold and wet we were very glad to arrive at a nice warm mountain lodge within an hour or so of the pass. We settled down for an early night before a 6am start up Toubkal.

IMG_1454
The 4000m+ peaks of Clochetons Central, Afella and Akioud.

 

Refugue Toubkal (CAF Nelter Shelter) to Marrakech

The refuge let us leave a bag full of kit with them whilst we ascended. Goodbye tent, a change of clothes, food, sleeping bag etc. it felt like walking on air! We needed head torches for about the first 10-15 minutes but the sun was well up before we started tackling the boulder field. The first 300m of the 1000m climb from the refuge are undoubtably the toughest on the legs with several routes through the loose scree-field.

After an hour or thereabouts of climbing we eventually exited the screen onto a better path climbing in the shade which kept it nice and cool.

Once we finally made the summit ridge it was a windy but crisp half an hours walk to the summit, marked with a pyramidal metal cone.

IMG_1471

The sun was up by the time we reached the summit which allowed us a comfortable 15 minutes or so enjoying some Kendal Mint Cake and chatting to fellow climbers.

IMG_1474
My first Four-Thousander!

The descent to the hut was straightforward although it was not fun re-filling the rucksacks with heavy stuff. Lots of people (with no equipment) and their mules (carrying lots of equipment) overtook us on the scenic path down from the head of the valley – after 6 days we had tired legs!

IMG_1485
Last look back at the refuges.

The descent was pretty and very busy with people. Sadly after about 6km of descent the weather started to falter. For the first 20 minutes we had a few large rain drops which were pleasantly cooling in the heat after which the heavens opened on a biblical scale. Small rocks and clods of turf were being swept up in the water; we were soaked to the skin over the next half an hour. We made our way as fast as our legs could carry our heavy wet rucksacks towards Imlil. On the outskirts of Aroumd some 2km from Imlil a large number of construction workers were packing up their equipment they were using to construct a new mini hydro-dam and racing their diggers and trucks up the hill to Imlil for an unknown reason. We obviously looked pretty miserable because a couple of them took pity on us and suggested we got a lift with them in the back of their pick-up truck along with a local family of 6 and another two wet and miserable british walkers.

On arrival at Imlil we got changed and grabbed a Taxi as fast as we could – discovering on the way out of town part of the new road had been blocked by a landslide (which was why the diggers were shifting to clear it). Our taxi driver took us on the old road which his little car clearly wasn’t set up for but we safely traversed it never-the-less.

We found our way back to our Riad in Marrakech eventually, and had a relaxed 36hrs eating food which was (mainly) not vegetable tagine, soaking up the atmosphere and sleeping.

IMG_E1520
Jemaa el Fna square, Marrakech

I’m glad to be home with the creature comforts and clean water, but it was a fantastic experience in a country with friendly, cheerful people.

If you’re reading this and thinking of doing the same or similar trip I’m more that happy to answer questions, just comment below.

Advertisements

Summer Mountain Leader Training with Beyond the Edge

I spent the end of May on my Summer Mountain Leader training and got another week of great weather in North Wales! It was a physically tough week but I certainly feel like I’m safer on the hills at the end of it. The company I booked with, Beyond the Edge, was professional and efficient and it worked out as a relatively cheap week as they provide training only, enabling you to book cheap and cheerful accommodation keeping the whole thing very reasonable. We were an eclectic bunch on the course – ranging from a veterinary nurse specialising in exotic animals to a ex-army serviceman looking to design a new long-distance footpath across Yorkshire.

Why train as a mountain leader when I’m a perfectly happy doctor one might wonder? Firstly it opens up more doors for me if I ever do any expedition medicine work. Secondly, experienced as I am in the hills, after my experience in Torridon last september (see here) I made the decision that I might be experienced, but I had more to learn to keep me and others safe in the worst case scenarios!

The 6 day course covered a number of skills including micro (short distance), macro (long distance) and night navigation, rope work, moving on steep ground, safety equipment, route planning and an overnight expedition. Our instructors Alex and Oli were friendly and approachable, and whilst quite different in their styles of teaching complimented each others approaches.

IMG_0984

Skills training was carried out across all 6 of the days, but some days did have a particular focus in order to really hone in on particular key skills.

Navigation for me is one of my stronger skill sets as I orienteered a lot as a teenager, but I was still challenged by the level of preciseness required on the course (and on a 1:25000 map at that) in order for us to be “assessment ready”. Doing three hours night navigation on the expedition (at which point I’d been up 18hrs) was a real challenge and my concentration began to let me down at about 1230 in the morning and I found myself loosing track of my pacing on a number of occasions and ending up literally sat in a marsh.

Aside from one day of torrential downpours, the weather was fantastic and I actually ran short of “summer” clothes on the trip which is pretty unusual for the UK!

IMG_E1021

The expedition was the cumulation of a week of hard work. We all enjoyed ourselves, and the midges enjoyed us, although the whole thing was pretty hard work with 4 days on the hills already under our belts! Still the best experiences in the outdoors often are at least partially type 2 fun. And I got to cook a lot of pasta.

We focused on the week on our knowledge nature and the environment so seeing welsh mountain ponies and buzzards on the expedition was a nice highlight. We didnt find any of the ferral goats; although a few sheep did fool a few of the group at a distance!

IMG_E1052

IMG_E1084

You can find out more about Beyond the Edge and the training they offer on their website here

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

Snowdonia

For some reason, I always seem unaccountably blessed with good weather when I head over to Snowdonia but I’m not complaining – what a way to start the summer!

Shirin and I are off to do our UK mountain leader course in a couple of weeks time, so as well as brushing up on our rope skills, we headed off to Snowdonia this weekend to get a feel for the terrain and get some quality mountain miles under our belts.

IMG_E0773

After a late arrival thanks to bank holiday traffic we headed up behind Glyder for some rope work. A very useful, (if not particularly glamorous) few hours later we’d got our heads around harness-free abseil, belay and descent techniques. I hope I never have to use any of them, but its certainly better than sleeping on the side of a hill hoping someone can rescue you in the morning.

Sunday we headed up Snowdon – a classic mountain day via Crib Goch a stunning grade 1 scramble, and back via the Y Lliwedd ridge.

Summiting Crib Goch was great fun and would have been a fine day out in itself, but the rest of the ridge route was simply spectacular. I can’t say I would have enjoyed it in windy weather – but we had the perfect day for it, still and sunny.

At lunch we were joined by a local friendly raven which was great to see so up close. I’ve been trying recently to make an effort to get a bit better at my wildlife and flora identification, so it was a nice little bonus to see this chap!

IMG_0845

We skipped the summit queue and headed on around the horseshoe. By taking the more challenging paths we had very little congestion (or company) on our routes. I cannot say I have EVER seen so many people out on top a UK mountain, but its nice that people were enjoying the outdoors.

IMG_0850

IMG_0856

Cooling my feet with Crib Goch rising above the lake was a lovely end to a stunning walk. I can only hope the weather is as beautiful in a couple of weeks time!

IMG_E0862

SaveSaveSaveSave

“Ski Touring” in Sheffield.

Perhaps not so much touring as just skiing, but if you know Sheffield, that is achievement enough! Over the last couple of days the UK has had a very large amount of snow. I’ve lived in Sheffield for 10 years now but can’t remember seeing this much since at least 2010 and this time its in March! Yesterday was a beautiful afternoon so I took a stroll out to our local park which was full of kids sledging. Today was much the same – thankfully I had a scheduled day off as the 20cm+ of snow at my back door was not making me feel particularly enthusiastic about getting in a car! The weather was much less pleasant than yesterday, but still I though I’d best make the most of it. XC Skis out, wax on, off I go!

IMG_0531

I had a lovely 4-5km ski into the peaks, but struggled a bit to find a ski-friendly step and grit free way home – still it was a worthwhile couple of hours exercise!

Back to work tomorrow – hopefully the car will be movable by then.

Winter Hiking: Two Lakeland Days

I’ll never get tired of photographing the Langdale Valley. It is undeniably picturesque, but as a subject of the Lake District’s climate, its appearance is just as kaleidoscopic as the weather it is subjected to. This weekend was no exception, with one of the most dramatic weather turn-arounds I’ve experienced in a while.

Despite my fair share of winter fun in the Lakes over the last few years I’ve somehow avoided proper winter conditions and in fact, have been blessed with surprisingly mellow weather and terrain, ( https://therockthatishigher.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/good-riddance-2016/ ).

DSC03424
Skiddaw January 2017

I was never-the-less a little apprehensive about my friend Shirin’s suggestion of camping this weekend. “Well if you’re sure you want to…”. But buoyed up by my recent passing of my Anaesthetic exams and a you only live once outlook I packed up the car with multiple layers of clothing, sleeping bags and camping gear pondering whether I’d end up mildly hypothermic digging myself out of a tent under a foot of snow.

As it turned out, as far as the weather was concerned, that wasn’t too far off the reality!

DSC04662

After a comfortable Friday night in Ambleside Youth Hostel we woke up to a rather eerie, wintry Ambleside and bedecked with clothing comparable to the early rounds of pass-the-parcel we embarked up Great Langdale with some trepidation as to what conditions overhead and underfoot would offer to us.

Luckily there was next to no wind, which made what could have been horribly unpleasant conditions rather more bearable. We were also helped by fresh, powdery, forgiving snow which was easy to walk on and step-cut into, making our clockwise ascent of Crinkle Crags (834m) surprisingly manageable, although navigation was laborious at times.

DSC04673

DSC04669
Ascending

After a rather bleak couple of hours we eventually bumped into a couple of people even crazier than us – out for a fell run at the summit.

DSC04683

And we thought we were cold!

DSC04682
Shirin summiting Crinkle Crags

Things slowed down a little on the descent as snow on the lower slopes was more of a slippery slush, but with the campsite in our sights and the thought of somewhere warm and dry to eat supper (the Old Dungeon Gill Hotel Hiker’s Bar was calling) we made steady progress to the valley bottom.

Clean clothes, a warm shower and a very large meal later I improvised a hot water bottle out of a Sigg water canister and hoped that a silk liner inside my OMM (one season) sleeping bag inside of my Rab 300 (three season) sleeping bag would be enough to keep the cold at bay as none of them were rated as anywhere near “comfortable” at minus temperatures.

DSC04695
A sleeping bag in a sleeping bag in a sleeping bag…

Despite waking up with ice on both inside and out of the tent I actually had an amazingly good nights sleep so perhaps two sleeping bags are the way forward from now on!

And what a difference a night made to the weather.

I have rarely seen the valley look so spectacular. Barely a cloud in the sky! Sadly we didn’t have time for another peak this morning so we headed over the pass into Little Langdale to stretch our legs a little before heading home.

DSC04733

Finally free of revision after over a year of reading textbooks alongside full time work – I can’t wait for this summer! Stay tuned folks…

DSC04713

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

Glimpses of Scotland

The end of my planned running/walking/cycling/swimming holiday was scuppered somewhat by my car breaking down 35 miles from the nearest garage the day after our Liathach epic (see below) which lead to me hitchhiking from the garage across a range of Munros (with a lovely local lady who saved me from a night sleeping on the roadside by getting me back to Torridon) and then a bus ride back to the garage the following day.

That being said we got to see a little of beautiful Wester Ross and the recently developed North Coast 500 road despite the anxiety!

DSC04658

The Loch Maree nature reserve.

Views around the hostel.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6543.
View over Loch Torridon from the Torridon community shop and cafe.

Onward to Inverness

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6545.
The Battle of Culloden field

Down to Crianlarich on the way home.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6550.
Lots of wildlife at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel. We even met this little guy – a shrew out and about for lunch. 
DCIM100GOPROGOPR6558.
Looking out to Ben More with another rainbow.

On the plus side I found out on Friday I passed my exam! Back into the revision now for the viva part of the exam and a few more boring weekends indoors. Fingers crossed I’ll have that out the way by the new year and can get back to some racing and a more relaxing holiday!

SaveSave

Going Grey; Liathach turns mean.

Liathach – “The Grey One”, an 8km ridge on the north side of Glen Torridon rising to a peak of 1055m (3461ft) vertically from sea-level, six 900+m peaks joined by a grade 2 scrambling route known as the Fasarinen Pinnacles. A combination of Quartzite and Torridon sandstone, Liathach’s red flanks are topped by a grey shale that gives it it’s gaelic name.

I last visited Torridon, a pretty village in Scottish Highlands that gives its name to the surrounding valley and hills, in 2013 just after I had graduated from medical school. We tackled the Ben Alligin ridge last time around and got a taste of the views to the north over Wester Ross but we were quickly covered in cloud and didn’t get to see much after that.

DSC_0496
Ben Alligin 2013

Torridon felt quiet different this time around. Heavy marketing of NW Scotland has brought in far more tourists both in motorhomes and in hire cars traversing the narrow roads. Last time we were one of only a few groups in the hostel – this time it has been fully booked nearly every night. The mountains themselves remain quiet – most people are just touring.

Liathach’s ridge had been on my to-do list since the last time I was in Torridon. It is a serious mountain but generally described as one of the best summer traverses in the country. Following a recommended guide book route, our plan was to walk out to the far end of Glen Torridon and take the pass up between Liathach and Ben Eighe taking a direct ascent of the first peak, Stùc a Choire Dhoibh Bhig, rather than doubling back upon ourselves as most walkers do. We would then traverse the full length of the ridge descending the usual path just a kilometre along the valley from the youth hostel.

IMG_0648
A scale topographical model of Liathach in Torridon Youth Hostel

I’d read a few route reports on Walk Highland (available on t’internet) and decided that despite the fact most walkers had found it unnecessary we were going to take a rope, harnesses and helmets along with a basic climbing rack in case of disasters.  Many of the reports noted the scrambly ascent on the usual ascent path with some helpful photographs it had given me a good idea of the route and the major landmarks. We carefully checked the MWIS forecast and settled on the Tuesday of our stay as being the best option for climbing with a “90% chance of cloud-free Munros”, “low windspeeds by the afternoon” and “rain clearing as winds fall”.

10:00: We set off at around on Tuesday having left our contact details and route with the local mountain rescue post (with an estimated arrival time of 6pm) and set off up off the valley. The late start was to avoid the worst of the wind on the hills and local advice was a slow traverse of the mountain should take around 6 1/2hrs, although we were warned slightly ominously “Everyone around here knows someone who has died on that mountain”. The weather seemed to be rapidly getting better as we left our wet weather option (a circular walk around the mountain) after 9km along the valley bottom, we climbed steeply and steadily up to Stùc a Choire Dhoibh Bhig.

12.40: Around 30m from the first summit we hit a wall of rock around 3-4m climb divided into a couple of large steps. The guidebook had prepared me for this this but not for quite how slippery the rock was after a rain shower in the morning. After a considered but slightly anxious scramble we made it up onto the ridge and were treated to some stunning views.

DSC04635

The first 3km or so over the first two peaks was spectacular with occasional short lived drifts of damp cloud.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6488.

The ridge “path” was obvious but not easy going requiring a fair bit of scrambling and high steps and as a result after lunch I moved my map from its usual place (tucked over my waist band) and secured it under the hood of my rucksack. As you can see from the photo below (unbeknownst to me) it did not stay there very long.

DSC04637
The beautiful Glen Torridon and an omen of the times to come.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6500.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6515.

13.30: When we started ascending to the third peak Richard asked the name of the particular Munro we were ascending. Taking off my pack I realised somewhere in the last 30-45 minutes my map had fallen out. Having descended through an labyrinthine scree field from Dubh Mor where the path divided into several smaller “pathlets” and walked along a connecting ridge I thought the chances of us finding by retracing my steps it were small – it certainly wasn’t visible locally and that it had quite probably already blown itself off the mountain.

At this stage we had a decision to make. The ridge was clear of cloud and we were probably only 4km from the hostel. Moving briskly and including the decent I estimated this would take us just over a couple of hours to get down to the road. None of the walk reports, nor the guidebook had mentioned any difficulty in the decent path. Turning back would have extended an already 16km walk and involved down-climbing either the ridge scramble we’d come up ( which I was not keen on as the easy bit of it would have been much less obvious from the top down) or trying to find the usual ascent path we didn’t see earlier as we traversed the ridge. We decided to keep going

DSC04646
And there was no longer a map.

Within 20 minutes a heavy rainshower had started and as we reached the summit of Spidean Choire Leith the visibility rapidly dropped to around 5 meters. We decended along a path from the summit only to find it lead to a sheer cliff – on a good day it must have been a nice viewpoint. I got Richard to take the compass out his pack with the view to taking a westward bearing from the summit to discover (to my horror) that a new bubble was now floating around the arrow, making it completely useless. Heading back up to towards summit I saw what I’d been hoping to see, the cloud cleared a little and showed first of the Pinnacles with both the direct and escape paths winding around them which we contoured around to. Luckily we only lost 10-15 minutes on the detour and continued on.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6526.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6532.
The Pinnacles “easy path”

The heavy rain shower had made an attempt over the Pinnacle’s scramble an absolute no-no plus at this stage we both just wanted to get off the hill.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6534.

15.30: After a bracing kilometre or so we found ourselves on a rather wider ridge and began to ascend slowly but steadily to the last peak of the climb. Although under a kilometre it felt like a long way up to the second Munro of the day. Luckily the path was obvious and took us right to the summit cain before swinging back south.

16.15: We started the descent from Mullach an Rathan along a clear path which became less defined as we descended lower. We found one cairn around 200m from the summit, then a second cairn around 50m further down before the path became indistinct. I followed what I thought was the most likely path off the right side (to the west) of a north-south ridge, which was more gently sloping than the eastern side which from what I could see was mainly crags, sadly a map would have told me the real descent path was just below to the east.

16.45 The gentle slope became increasingly steep, which I knew we should expect for a short time. Then 10m crags rose up to left and to right and we were gradually funnelled into a dry river-gully. Underfoot was a mixture of mud, wet scree, loose boulders the size of footballs and boulders the size of small fridges, some fixed, others less so. After we had descended around 50m further vertical height from the ridge it was quite clear from what was underfoot that we were not on the usual descent route but I thought we might be running parallel to it. We discussed climbing back onto the ridge but concluded that we might not find a safer route down but just ended up back where were were but in the dark. Every 10-15m we descended I traversed out out horizontally to the left and right trying to find the true path which gave Richard time to catch up with me, but with no luck, just more impassible crags. A slip now would probably result in a broken ankle at best. Ever step triggered small-rockfalls bouncing down the gully at which point we became very thankful for our helmets. We resorted to a combination of shuffling on our backsides and down-climbing facing the hill, digging fingers into the occasional heather tussock. Every now and then there was a big step in the gully which could only be assessed when you were directly on-top of it. Footholds and handholds needed to be tested twice. I considered briefly whether we should be trying to abseil as a faster option but I could find virtually nothing that was fixed enough to the ground to offer a secure placement for a sling or nuts so I decided to save the rack in-case we came across something entirely impassible. We slowed to a crab-like crawl.

18.30. We were both exhausted and very cold and it felt like I’d been in the gully for an eternity. Lowering myself down most of the hill left me soaked in muddy water from the waist down. I put on an extra layer which helped my mood and we ate the last of the chocolate. At this point we were now 30mins past our estimated arrival time back at the hostel. Towards the end of the gully and I took one more excursion outside of it to the right and was finally greeted by a large expanse of heather sloping steeply down towards a stream with less scree and crags. Hurrah! We were still about 450m above sea level (and the hostel) but the worst was over.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6535.
Finally out of the Gully (to the centre right of the image) at around 350m and on our way down the heather. This doesn’t really give the impression of the size/steepness/twilight of it all.

Three days earlier I had run down a similar bit of greenery in about 15 minutes but we were both shattered and walking boots don’t grip like fell shoes, so like Shackleton before me I sat on my backslide and we slid our way most of the way back to the hostel. Sadly we weren’t moving quite as quickly as he did on a sled and ended up walking the last kilometre or so in the complete darkness (luckily within sight of the road by the time we needed a head-torch). At this stage we were two hours late and mountain rescue gave us a quick ring to make sure we were ok (cue embarrassment on my part) but as we were only half an hour from the hostel with a road in sight I at least saved them a trip out in the rain! To top it all off we ended up fighting our way through a thicket, then a knee deep stream, then over a deer fence to get to the road but by that stage we really didn’t care! We finally got back to the hostel 11 hrs after we left.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR6537.
Benighted but heading towards the reassuring lights of the Youth Hostel

The irony of this happening just weeks after asking on this blog “when does risk-taking become uncontrolled?” is not lost to me. Although turning back when the map was lost may have been a better option in hindsight, we would still have been looking for a unknown descent route in thick cloud. So in future I will A) Not loose the map and B) Take some photos on my phone of the route when I’m in an area with limited mobile phone reception (as no internet reception meant we couldn’t access any mapping features to help with the navigation). I might also be investing in the OS mapping app!

Although it is probably least fun I’ve ever had on a mountain and at times the most worried I’d been I am glad of two things. Firstly that we had the skills and knowledge to self-rescue without injury or outside interference and secondly that our only casualty of the day was Richard’s walking trousers which did very much look like he’d just slid in them 800m down the side of a mountain!

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave