Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Freeze-dried Easter

A long weekend in Scotland with the family presented an opportunity to get out into the hills for a couple of days. At least I now have a new excuse: I'm in training! The venue was the complex little range of hills in the angle between Loch Arkaig and Loch Lochy. I was carrying a fairly heavy pack with ice axe, crampons and extra thermal clothing as well as all the usual gear - tent, sleeping bag, food for a night and two days, stove, gas canister and all the other bits and pieces. The weather:  benign with lots of sunshine and little wind; however it was very cold - the tail end of the coldest March in 50 years. Although the wind was generally light it was a biting easterly that was hard to ignore.
Looking south east over Loch Lochy to the Grey Corries, Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis
Aside from the pure pleasure of having a break from work and getting out into the mountains, this was a good chance to test my fitness and also various bits of gear I've gradually been acquiring over the last year or two. With the added metal bulk of crampons and ice axe, the pack was probably as heavy, if not more so, than anything I'll be carrying during the Tay watershed walk.

My first observation was that my fitness and stamina has continued to improve. Lugging the pack up steep slopes and across trackless moors from the south to reach Meall na Teanga (917m) was hard but far from exhausting work. My pace was steady and stops infrequent. The weight training is paying dividends: if I can't train by regular hillwalking, weights are the next best thing.

Grey Corries from Meall na Teanga
Whilst the southern slopes of the hills were largely snow-free, it was a completely different matter on the tops. Meall na Teanga's northern slopes and corries were full of snow and ice and overhung by big cornices. Traversing the narrow  ridge from the top of Meall Coire Lochan to Meall na Teanga had a real winter mountaineering flavour. Slung slackly between the peaks like a precarious rope bridge in an Indiana Jones film, it was covered in deep powdery-dry snow that had been blown into a sharp crest along much of its length. Beyond Meall na Teanga, where the ridge drops steeply to the Cam Bhealaich, crampons were necessary to cross steep slopes of hard, crystalline snow.

An unavoidable late start meant that by the time I reached the Cam Bhealaich it was too late to go on to Sron a'Choire Ghairbh and find a campsite before dark, so I focused on the latter and found a lovely grassy spot by the Allt Cam Bhealaich with a view to the craggy cone of Meall an Tagraidh ahead to the west, and the snowy bulk of Meall na Teanga and its tight complex of subsidiary peaks behind. I was also tired from the adrenaline buzz of the wintry traverse.

Freeze dried chilli con carne and rice followed by custard and berries were tested and found to be pretty darned tasty. The brand was Mountain House, bought from Tiso's superstore outside Perth on the drive north. I imagine freeze-dried food has been vile in the past but I could happily live on this stuff for a while, with the odd steak and salad and bacon and eggs thrown in now and then. The preparation is simple and ideal for situations like this where you're cold, tired and don't want to be faffing around: open the pouch of food, fill with boiling water, stir, re-seal, leave for a few minutes, stir again and eat. A hot meal worked wonders and I felt fully revived.

I'd looked forward to witnessing a stunning starscape; it was also not long past the full moon. However it had clouded over somewhat and there were snow flurries so I crawled into my sleeping bag and read until my eyes started to close. Sleep ended abruptly at 4.30am: the cold was intense and woke me up. My sleeping bag has an extreme limit of -10c (so probably will be fine for the early summer Tay watershed walk) and I reckon it must have been around that temperature or lower. Some sort of instinctive survival mechanism kicked in: I desperately wanted to sleep, but every time I was close to dropping off I was jolted awake.

Intensely cold early morning by the Allt Cam Bhealaich
The day dawned fine and sunny again and I had a long and trackless trek over the two Corbetts to the west that overlook Loch Arkaig: Meall na h-Eilde (838m) and Geal Charn (804m). The hills were surprisingly empty. I only met one couple on the path down to Loch Arkaig. The car park at Eas Cia-aig was quite busy though with walkers returning from the Loch Lochy Munros.

Frozen waterfall on Meall an Tagraidh

On the summit of Geal Charn looking west
Again, fitness and energy were good today despite the heavy pack. Back at the car in the late afternoon I certainly felt the miles in my legs - but it was a pleasant tiredness, not an exhausted tiredness.

Loch Arkaig from the Achnasaul path in the late afternoon

Next month I'm off to Fisherfield for three days and two nights of backpacking, which I'm now looking forward to with confidence rather than trepidation. In the meantime it's back to the weights.

View from Meall Coire nan Saobhaide over Glas Bheinn to Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis

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