Calamity on Cruachan

Where to?

We had been planning a good hill walk for a while. Becoming less sociable in our old age, it’s always difficult to organise activities beyond yourself. But four of us managed to get out for a weekend, the plan was to do a hill, maybe a ridge and stay overnight in Oban.

The B&B was booked and we just needed to choose a peak to climb. After quizzing some Oban friends, Ben Cruachan was the climb we settled for. It has a nice curved ridge route that circles above the reservoir used to drive the hydro-electric turbines deep inside the mountain.

A sign of what would come

Three of us left from the South side of Glasgow to pick up our fourth member on the way. We were already running a bit late, but before we even crossed the Clyde, we had taken two or three wrong turns. Not a good omen, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining.

We had looked ahead in the forecast and we were aware the good weather wouldn’t last. There was a strong South Westerly, so at least the weather should keep moving and give the potential for improvement.

With everyone accounted for, we set off, stopping briefly at the Green Welly for coffee before skirting Loch Awe and stopping at the small lay-by that marked the start of out circular route.

A Good Start

The route from the road follows a steep forested path that passes under the railway line. It was muggy, very warm for the time of year and the air was quite still while walking though the trees. I couldn’t help wondering how many tics may be hanging, waiting for my blood. A healthy paranoia I have since finding five critters teasing on me after a hike last May. None were found thankfully.

Ben Cruachan
© C. Nicholson

The four of us chatted, wandering up the steep track and over the deer fence then out on to more open ground. The grey buttressed retaining wall of the reservoir looming on the hill above. After climbing the ladder on the face of this wall, there was a good track around the water’s edge.

As we rounded the reserver the cloud was just touching the tops of the surrounding hills. There was a brightness to the South though and the hope was that this would make its way to us.

We left the good track and started up the trail to the ridge.

Cruachan Dam Cruachan Reservoir

Onward and Upward

We had walked for well over an hour and we decided to stop for a bite to eat and a drink. Turns out someone brought beers! Just a wee one each you understand.

We spied the cloud which now ominously started to descend the face of the hills. The cloud base was getting lower and there was no sign that the good weather was getting any closer.

With jackets on, we started off again following a fast flowing burn. We zig zagged up the path as the wind strengthened. A couple and their dog passed us making their way down. They muttered something about it being windy up top.

© C. Nicholson

As we neared the bealach which would mark the start of the ridge, we passed a group of girls who had overtaken us as we sat for lunch. We asked if they were going to complete the ridged. They replied, “No” they answered, “the couple with the dog told us it was too windy”. We carried on.

Sensory Deprivation

We were now inside the cloud. We had crested the bealach, sometimes known as a saddle, where the ridge dipped. The wind screamed over from one side to the other.

We could see the small lochan that was mentioned on the route guide. This indicated we should start climbing along the ridge to the north-east.

The climb was a scramble in places and once on the ridge itself we found ourselves doubling back and dropping down now and then as the path made its way through slick wet rocky outcrops.

Although it wasn’t raining as such, we were in a cloud, so soon our feet were drenched and outer layers saturated. There was still no visibility, but now and then figures would appear out of the gloom and we’d nod and say hello.

We chatted, discussing our states of saturation, when we might get back to Oban and other forgettable ramblings. The summit of Ben Cruachan passed us by without much recognition.

Blind leading the blind

The route across the ridge undulated and was mostly clear seen underfoot in the form of crushed granite or muddy track. That was until it crossed a stretch of slab. Large boulders guided us along and we dropped down onto the path once more. This then gave way to grassy slopes, which we took to be the decent south-east into the corrie with the reservoir presumed to be below us. We were still well and truly surrounded by mist with nothing to take a bearing on.

Stopping to rest up and I took the opportunity to check my View Ranger map on my phone. We are all aware it’s not good practice to rely on technology for navigation, however, something didn’t seem quite right. The map popped up and  immediately I could see we were well off track. My heart sunk even further when I realised we were actually on the wrong side of the ridge. “Ah shit guys. We have a problem.” We huddled around my phone, drips falling from our noses onto the screen. Cross referencing with the map, it became clear we would have to back track and find the ridge once more.

narrow ridge
© C. Nicholson

I also scanned the area on the map below us on the off-chance there would be a track or road that could provide an escape. There was nothing for miles. We had to make it back to the ridge.

The climb back up the grassy slope was tiring, but nothing compared to the stress of trying to find a way past the steep rocky faces, the buttresses of the ridge we had walked across earlier. Time was getting on and the gloom was getting darker. The wind was also still extremely strong and I for one was starting to chill. I don’t readily feel the cold, but I changed into some dry clothes and we continued on.

We tracked below walls of rock, back and forth. Some areas just too steep to tackle safely. Eventually after assessing whether we could pull each other up onto a ledge, Colin found an alternative way round that was a touch easier and eventually brought us back onto the ridge. We gathered ourselves and tried to make sense of what happened.

Fool Me Twice

I took out my phone again and checked our location. The directions didn’t seem to make sense and the suggestion was counter intuitive.

As we were talking an individual appeared with a huge rucksack and he went on to explain that he planned to camp out further along the ridge. We asked if he knew the area, but this was his first visit. He did advise us that the path should be perfectly clear and after he disappeared into the mist, we once again continued along the ridge.

We crossed the precarious narrow ledge once more and the familiar slabs were once again traversed. At this point we stopped and asked the question of ourselves, “Are we making the same mistake again?”. We were indeed headed to the wrong side of the ridge. What was going on? We had been following the ridge leading off to Drochard Ghlas instead of continuing on to Stop Diamh. The time was now around 5:30pm, it would be dark in a few hours and the wind was strengthening if anything.

Calamity on Cruachan
© C. Nicholson

We backtracked and decided as we walked that if we could not find the correct path, we would re-trace our steps, all the way back, the way we had come. This itself would be  long walk. We stopped again at the point where we had talked with the guy who was camping. My phone was out of juice so I had it charging in my pocket as backup. The map was itself starting to disintegrate in the rain and we found ourselves second guessing the compass bearings. It was really confusing. As we were talking, Colin once again spotted the route. In the mist there was a tiny cairn beside a turnoff. “Is that not the route there?” he shouted in the wind, pointing. It seemed to be in the direction we had previously climbed up from so it wasn’t obvious. We were almost doubling back on ourselves, but this made sense as to why it had not been obvious. We started down the trail, and thankfully we didn’t recognise any of the route. This meant at least we were breaking new ground. The wind was howling up-slope towards us, which, implied (if it hadn’t changed direction) that we were on the correct side of the ridge at least.

All Downhill from here

We spent ten minutes or so traversing to the east once more. This was the clockwise  route to complete the horseshoe of mountains. Niels, who was ahead, made the turn off the path which we had discussed earlier, to leave the ridge and make our way down the corrie. This was unmarked and although mostly grassy slopes, it did include rocky outcrops with precipitous drops.

As with any long descents, it was hard going on the knees. But it was now that my old back injury started to make itself known.

Daylight was definitely getting scarce and the air was still thick with mist. However, in the distance, I could see John in his red jacket raising his arms in celebration. The view ahead didn’t reveal any clues. It was when Colin and I caught up that the cloud was swept away briefly by the wind, revealing the silver plated surface of the reservoir below. It was still a good distance away, but it was a relief as it was our first evidence that we really were on the correct route home.

Spotting the reservoir

Looking back up – Our route of descent.

We stretched out again as some descended faster than others. Some deep ravines either side of us dictated our route. The local sheep looked on in disdain as we stumbled down the slope. Finally it levelled off for a while and we worked our way towards the path that flanked the body of water.

We chatted and discussed our late arrival in Oban tonight. Would we be back in time to eat? It was around 7pm by now and we still had the forest path to negotiate in darkness.

Niels disappeared ahead of us. He didn’t have a torch so shot off towards the cars. We put on our head torches and felt our way through the tunnel of trees and over the deer fence once more.

I was really hobbling now and could feel my old injury pulsating with every step. The temperature was up now and I had to take my jacket off in the still dark air of the oak forest. There was another hour of this before we heard Niels welcoming us to the car park as we passed under the railway and onto the roadside.

Oban at last

Niels had called ahead and made sure the local Indian restaurant would still be serving when we got in to town. Very important you understand! After the short drive to Oban we checked in to the B&B, showered, then made our way to the restaurant for a satisfying end to our adventure. Well, it wasn’t quite the end. A few rums in the local pub eased our aches and pains before hitting the hay.

In the end

So was it really a calamity on Cruachan? I know people always proclaim that electronic devices should never be relied upon fo navigation, and I completely agree. They should never be the sole means of navigation. However, in a state of confusion, with zero landmarks visible they can be used at least to confirm your position. If you are going to use a smart phone, bring a charging unit. I carry a small one just to bring a device back to life. Often the cold or damp will shutdown an iPhone, well before it has lost charge. The only thing to bring it back again is to plug it in. I also use the View Ranger app with OS maps to check my position and plan routes.

Maybe we’ll do it again in better conditions, maybe even a dry sunny summer day. Rather than marginal conditions on a windy autumnal day.

Below is a short clip that gives you an idea of weather conditions.Thanks to Colin for most of the clips and photos. I was saving power on my phone for navigation.