Tuesday was a very warm day in The Netherlands, 24 C.. Before boarding police were checking cars with dogs, something I've never experienced before. After some delay the journey across the Northsea was very smooth although I didn't sleep well. I never do on such a trip.
Disembarking in Newcastle upon Tyne the next day was again delayed by stringent inspections from British customs. I received a text message from my wife saying she couldn't contact me. I tried to call home but a message from my provider said I didn't have enough credit left on my prepaid card. Ridiculous because I had raised my credit considerably before leaving home. Taking out and putting back in the battery solved that problem. I also switched on my Satmap 10 gps to let it know I was in the UK. It scared the hell out of me that it only showed the UK basemap. Again taking out and putting back in the batteries solved the problem and to my relieve I could use the 1:50k All of Britain map again. I followed the A1 north and a couple of minutes after passing the Scottish Border it started to rain. And it only stopped for 10 minutes in Dalwhinnie where I delivered my spare parcel and the sun was shining. Within 2 minutes after leaving Dalwhinnie and driving south on the A9 I was back in the downpour again. Around 6pm I collected my trainticket at Montrose Station for next day's journey to Mallaig before settling down at the South Links Holiday Park. I decided to keep the tent dry and payed for a night in a log cabine. I won't do that again. At three times the costs of pitching your tent you get no lighting in a cramped space, two small benches, a telly, central heating and not enough sleep. Traveling by train from Montrose to Glasgow Queen Steet Station was uneventfull. The Challenge hordes were gathering to continue their journey north to either Mallaig or Oban. I saw a lot of familiar (blog)faces.
|Queen Street Station and...|
|...the gathering of the Clans.|
The second half of the journey is far more interesting. You're entering the Highlands and the railway goes through some familiar and tremendous landscapes. The driver reduced speed so passengers could experience the Glenfinnan aquaduct intensely. In the sunshine because between Glasgow and Mallaig the sun was showing itself on a regular basis.
In Mallaig I'd booked a bed in the small but convenient Mallaig Backpackers Lodge. Outside I met Rolf Kerkhof Mogot, a fellow Dutchman, and Colin Tock, one of the famous vetters. We had diner together and with some other Challengers got lured into a quiz in the Clachain Inn. A second place and no prize as result.
Friday morning I signed out at the West Highland Hotel. Despite being in the line of sight of a mast I couldn't get a signal on myphone. I still had it on roaming but I had to find a network manually. Vodafone didn't want me and O2 was too weak so T-Mobile it was. A last text message was sent home before venturing in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart where there is no reception at all. The battery of the Satmap gps had to be removed for the second time before being able to get a fixed position. This never happened at home.
|Knoydart Ferry at Mallaig Harbour|
The sun was shining as the ferry docked at the quay. I opted for the 9.30 Knoydart Ferry instead of the 10.15 Bruce Watt Ferry because I needed every possible minute to accomplish my two planned Munros. Once on the boat clouds were pushing in and it started to rain. The cold wind made us move into the cabin. 40 minutes later we were dropped of at the pier of Inverie. In contrast with Challenge tradition I didn't visit the Old Forge, Britain's remotest pub on the mainland. Instead I turned left to start the climb on the track to Mam Uidhe. In the forest I was out of the wind and it felt warm and humid so I removed my Paramo jacket.
|Near the Mam Uidhe|
|First sight of Ladhar Bheinn|
Once out of the forest and on the Mam Uidhe I can see Ladhar Bheinn, my first Munro of today, five kilometre as the crow flies. 2,5 km and 35 minutes after starting I arrived at the Folach turn-off. A pleasant track goes downhill into Gleann na Guiserein at an easy angle. One or two light showers
|The Folach turn-off|
|Ladhar Bheinn looking fine|
pass but there is no need to put on the jacket. Ladhar Bheinn is almost clear of clouds.
The ascent from Folach isn't the most interesting and commonly used as an easy descent route towards Inverie but the views from the ridge will be spectacular. Near the Folach footbridge a landrover is parked and beyond the old ruin an Akto has been pitched but there's no one around.
From the southeastern corner of the little forest it's a steady plod 2km northeast to reach the ridge near the little lochans. At first the angle of the grassy slope isn't steep but being my first hill in 3 years I still need to grasp my breath regularly. The inactivity caused by my lower backache a few weeks ago has apparantly lowered my degree of fitness considerably. Shortly after starting my ascent it starts to rain again, not hard but persistant. The slope gets significantly steeper and rockier for the last 500 meters beneath the ridge. A couple is coming down and the guy says the walking is good and not too windy. Although the cloudbase has lowered my direction is clear : 1,5 km SSE to reach the 1020m high summit of Ladhar Bheinn. To confirm this I check my Satmap. Shock and horror ! The device states it can't find it's internal memory ! Much to my releave I can still use the map itself which is on the SD-card. I've been studying my route for over 2 years so it's etched in my brain but it would be reassuring to see I'm still near the line on my map. The wind is strenghtening and the last 320m of ascent to reach the trigpoint is taking me longer than expected.
|The Ladhar trigpoint|
|very close to the trigpoint|
Suddenly its shape can be seen through the clouds, no more than 10m in front of me. A week ago this ridge was still snow-clad and impossible to walk without crampons and ice-axe and the snow is still alarmingly near. Today however it's the rain that's bothering me. Although not being in a downpour I can feel I'm getting wet inside my Paramo and my Goretex trousers. I'd washed them prior to the Challenge and reproofed them twice to be sure every inch would be rainproof. The same garment was 100% waterproof in a very wet and stormy Lairig Ghru 6 years ago. At 2.30pm I reach the true summit at 1020m but don't linger near its cairn.
|Ladhar Bheinn summit|
I start my descend but what should have been an 'easy' walk down turns out to be much more difficult and slower than going up. The southeastern side of the hill is the usual way up and down for thousands of hillbaggers every year and the surface is very eroded and the rocks are polished by tens of thousands of boots. It's a nightmare to micro-navigate my way down and the steep scrambling bits, normally my favourite pastime, demand my full attention. Despite my care I slip several times.
The going is slow and by now I'm completely soaked. At this speed I won't be able to climb Luinne Bheinn and reach the River Carnach before 9pm. I'm getting an irrational feeling that 'something' doesn't want me here, too many 'incidents' have taken place and I feel I can't ignore these bad omens any longer. If I continue I'll be in danger and something really bad will happen to me.
I decide to go as far as the Mam Barrisdale and make my way down to Inverie. I recall Inverie having a bunkhouse where I would be able to book a bed and dry my cloths.
By now all the little knolls on the ridge feel like endless mountains whose summits disappear in the clouds. I'm releaved to reach the Bealach Coire Dhorrcail but the sight of the rough and steep and seemingly endless climb out of the bealach makes me feeling desparate.
The Mam Barrisdale is beyond my reach and I turn right at the bealach to go down Coire Torr an Asgaill and into Gleann na Guiserein. The terrain is tussocky and water is everywhere but I don't bother to look for dry spots. There aren't any and my leather boots are filled with water already so why bother ? Countless 'wee burns' have to be forded and one makes me fall over and I land on my side, half in the burn and half in the bog on the other side.
|Gleann na Guiserein|
I walked passed the Old Forge and the last of the houses but saw no sign. After 500m I turned and walked back to Inverie. An old lady in a golfcart passed and when she returned I asked her for directions. I had to walk another 1km to the southeast for the Knoydart Foundation Bunkhouse.
A group was inside and said I had to look for the warden Anna in 'the house with the tractortires'.
She was very helpfull and said the bunkhouse was booked by a group and I had to ask them if I could stay for the night. I had seen a dryer in the bunkhouse and asked Anna permission to use it. She said that was okay. Back at the bunkhouse some members of the group didn't object sharing the bunkhouse with me but the leader of the group turned me down. I've never experienced such behaviour in the Highlands before and was amazed to say the least.
I went next door to the Knoydart Lodge B&B but they were fully booked also. My confidence in Highland hospitality was restored by Bob, the owner, who let this drowned backpacker inside and offered me tea immidiately and made some phonecalls to ask for availibility but everything was fully booked in Inverie. The Knoydart Foundation Ranger came in and said I could unofficially sleep in the logcabin on the beach. He also said there was also a peculiar woman with a trolley but I would get along with her just fine. I expressed my doubts about continuing my Challenge and Bob offered to bring me back to Mallaig with his own boat the next morning if I decided to stop. There's no ferryservice during the weekend : getting into Knoydart is easier than getting out.
Before going down to the beach I went back to the bunkhouse and stripped down to put all my wet cloths in the dryer. I wonder what the passing groupmembers where thinking of this halfnaked man in the hallway.
Unpacking my rucksack I discovered even my drybags had been letting in some water and, much more to my horror, my phone, which I had in a ziplockbag in the chestpocket of my Paramo, was wet.
Even my money was soaked. The only things that stayed perfectly dry were my Satmap, photocamera and print-outs of my routes. All had been put in Ortlieb mapcases.
45 minutes later I went to the logcabin and made myself 'comfortable' on one of the narrow benches. Some time later the 'trolleywoman', who turned out to be fellowchallenger Lindsay Jones, came in to prepare diner. She had postponed her start due to the bad weather.
By now I'd considered my options. Walking my lowlevel route to Sourlies and beyond seemed out of the question with even worse weather coming in and my phone out of order and not being able to contact Challenge Control on time. I would probably get soaked again without a chance to dry out.
I was still very strongly aware of nearby danger and the only thing I could think of was to go home as soon as possible. Lindsay tried to persuade me to continue but I had decided not to. She planned to go over to Barrisdale the next morning and when I asked her how she would cross burns with her trolley she replied she didn't know yet. I wished I had her optimism.
Lindsay retired to her tent and later that evening 6 young guys came in the logcabine to spend the night. Seven people sleeping in a 8 by 8 ft. logcabine makes you feel like sardines in a tin can. And I haven't mentioned the mice yet !
Saturdaymorning Bob ferried me back to Mallaig and by train I went to Fort William. I checked the timetable for my journey to Montrose the next day and discovered my watch had stopped 10 minutes earlier. Why ? I booked a bed at the Glen Nevis YH and asked for my parcel. It wasn't there.
I used the phone at the YH to contact the ferry company but of course they're not open in the weekend. I made a short call to Challenge Control saying I had withdrawn from the Challenge and last but not least an emotional phonecall home saying I would be returning home soon. On Sunday I returned to Montrose to call in at Challenge Control at the Park Hotel. John Manning was manning (pardon the pun) the desk and was busy answering incoming calls from Challengers. As I was there nr.7 and 8 reported their withdrawal and I learned that Lindsay J. was helicoptered out of the Mam Barrisdale the night before and another person was helicoptered out from Barrisdale. It must have been the Bermuda triangle.
Back at the Montrose campsite and my car I recharged my phone but sending one textmessage drained half the battery. Next morning I called the ferrycompany and got the answeringmachine saying "everybody was busy and I would be helped as soon as possible" (at 9am CET) . Then the music starts and my battery was drained. I plugged the phone into a socket and tried again. After 50 minutes someone at the ferrycompany felt sorry for me and answered the phone. I could get a ferry back to Holland the same day or a couple of days later. I left the campsite almost immidiately.
Driving past Edinburgh on the M9 my TomTom navigation indicated to stay on the righthandside lane for the A720 City Bypass. I've got an old TT and the situation has changed. I was driving towards Sterling and straight into an horrendous downpour. At the next junction I left the motorway and wanted to turn right at the end of the exit. Some cars passed in front of me coming from the right.
The road was clear, I pulled up and almost collided with a car coming from the right at high speed.
Something definitely wanted me out of Scotland, dead or alive.
Did I make the right decision ? I wasn't in immidiate danger and I've scrambled on knife-sharp ridges and stood on 2 inch wide ledges with a leathal drop beneath me in the past and I wasn't uncomfortable with that. Would something have happened to me if I pressed on ? Without the ability to go to a parallel universe I'll probably never know.