Monday, 21 November 2011

The snow hole that never was (part two). A retro blog.

..................Fast forward almost two years and we were once more planning a snow hole trip on Bein Ime. This time we were better prepared in every respect. Heavy snowfall had been followed by a thaw then a prolonged period of high pressure and freezing temperatures. What this meant was that I'd seen exactly how much snow was on the hills and knew that although the snow cover was patchy there were deep snow patches remaining which importantly would be frozen hard and would be really safe for digging into. The weather was forecast to break but we hoped to grab the last opportunity to get out beforehand. 
We parked up in the same lay by as the previous igloo trip and started getting ready.
Shuzzy had learned the lessons of the previous trip and now had a good quality down sleeping bag and Goretex bivi bag and some more techy clothing including a down jacket. He'd elected to make the ascent with a new split snowboard (we'd acquired one each to use for back country tours). I'd explained to him that there wasn't going to be much snow but he was keen to try out the split board for the first time. I decided to save the weight and just walk.
As you can see we also set off in the daylight this time as well!
As we got a bit further up the hill the cloud inversion that had kept our hometown of Helensburgh under a blanket of cloud for days came into view.
We had to stop briefly while Shuzz tended to a blister caused by his snowboard boots rubbing his heel (if you will go hill walking in snowboard boots!)
Chance for me to have a rest and take in the view then it was onwards and upwards to the top of the corrie head wall as the sun started to drop below the hills.
The light from the setting sun was stunning as it lit Bein Ime in it's glow. I think by now Shuzz was beginning to realise the folly of bringing his snowboard.
As we reached the bealach the sun dipped below the hills and we could tell we were in for a spectacular sunset.
There was no question of stopping lower down the hill this time, we knew the only chance of finding decent conditions for a snow hole were right on the northeastern flank of the summit so after a breather on the bealach we set off again.
This view is back down towards the bealach with the Cobbler behind and the flank of Ben Narnain on the left. 

The mountains poking through the clouds in the distance are on the Isle of Arran.
We could also just make out the red light on top of the chimney on Inverkip power station sticking through the cloud far to the south.
We were now high enough to have increasingly large patches of snow to cross.
Shuzz finally had the opportunity to deploy his split board and try skiing on climbing skins for the first time in his life!
He was able to ski to quite close to the summit before the slopes became too rocky and the snow too patchy so we found a level area so that he could remove the skis.
After that it was a short climb up to the summit cairn (and a new Munro for Shuzz).
With the obligatory summit photo out the way we sauntered over to the northeastern aspect of the summit cone where I'd spied a big patch of drifted snow through the binos whilst at work. This area had looked promising for digging a hole and sure enough the gully on that side of the summit was loaded with perfect hard neve snow (ideal for digging a snow hole). At this point though we decided that it would be sacrilege to spend the night below the surface when the sky was so crystal clear and the stars so bright. We elected instead to build a wall to act as a windbreak and bivi outside so we could look up from our sleeping bags and admire the heavens! We started cutting snow blocks which proved much easier with the hard snow (compared to the slush we'd had to use to build the igloo).
Although it was easy to form the blocks it was still hard work and Shuzzy had to have a lie down once we'd finished!
We moved into our shelter and got into our sleeping bags to keep warm (a few hundred quids worth of North Face down ensured there would be no repeat of the igloo experience for Shuzz!)
Once we'd settled in it was time for some food. As we were only out for one night there was no need to skimp on convenience food so we had salmon fillets with spicy couscous and sweet corn. The only problem was the speed at which it cooled down while we ate it (a sure sign of how low the temperature was).
After dinner we settled down to chat and stargaze until we fell asleep.The night sky was incredibly clear with the lack of light and atmospheric pollution and we were treated to quite a show with satellites, shooting stars and other celestial bodies.
The night passed without any dramas this time (other than the daunting task of answering the call of nature in such freezing conditions!) In the early hours the sky started to cloud over and the wind started to pick up as forecast. As soon as it came light we ate a hurried breakfast, packed up and prepared to descend before the inevitable precipitation arrived.
Shuzzy balanced precariously on the frozen snow with our shelter and the summit cairn behind.
Once we descended a little Shuzz strapped on his board and put in a few turns on the iron hard snow. It wasn't too pleasurable with the snow conditions so he soon resorted to walking again.
We were soon far enough down the mountain to be certain we could make it back to the car before the rain started.
In comparison with the igloo trip this one went off without a hitch and it really was a privilege to be in such a place on such a stunning night.
I still want to sleep in a snow hole at some point though!

The snow hole that never was (part one). A retro blog.

I've always harboured a desire to sleep in a snow hole but despite having slept out in the snow on many occasions it's something I've never actually accomplished.
From my place of work I have a great view of the Arrochar Alps (a range of mountains behind the village of Arrochar) and have often spent spare moments at work admiring the lovely views of snow covered hills like the one below.
A few years ago there was a heavy snowfall on these hills and I hatched a plan (with my faithful accomplice of the time Shuzzy) to try to finally do an overnight stay in a snowhole. The forecast initially looked very promising but I had a couple of night shifts to do before my next days off and I had my fingers crossed that the temperatures would stay cold enough to preserve the good snow. During my night shifts there was some really heavy rainfall at work but the temperature stayed fairly low so I remained hopeful that the rain would be falling as snow higher up. Unfortunately as it was dark, cloudy and moonless I didn't actually have the opportunity to see what the snow conditions were on the mountains.
The big day arrived and the plan was to leave around lunchtime to allow us time to get high up with some daylight left. That would allow us to search for a nice deep drift to dig our snow hole that would still be safe enough from avalanche or collapse (which can be a danger if you site your snow hole in the wrong place). Unfortunately Shuzz had his departure delayed and it was late afternoon before we parked half way up the "Rest and be Thankful" pass which was to be our starting point. The daylight was already fading fast as we sorted our gear at the side of the road and despite the poor visibility I was having the first pangs of doubt about the amount of snow on the hills. We'd decided to take our snowboards in the hope that we'd be able to board back off the hill the next morning (we've done quite a bit of backcountry snowboarding in Scotland and have the relevant safety gear and knowledge to do this). Combined with overnight bivi gear, food, stoves and spare clothing plus ice axes and crampons our backpacks were huge and very heavy as we set off from the car.

  We plodded slowly up the steep hillside past a series of small dams (part of a nearby hydro-electric scheme) taking frequent breathers and wondering when we'd hit the snowline.
The corrie which we were climbing ends in a steep headwall which I knew would be really hard going with such big packs, the upside was that it would allow us to gain height quickly to the bealach which lies between Bein Ime, Ben Narnain and The Cobbler where I expected we'd hit the snowline. I hoped that once there we would be able to contour around the side of Beinn Ime to an area that I knew held deep snow where we could search for a site to start digging our snow hole.
As we trudged up the headwall in our own little worlds of pain we became seperated, each trying to find a non existent easier line up the steep hillside. All I could see of Shuzz was his headtorch bobbing about in the distance as we worked our way upwards. Eventually the gradient eased off and we emerged onto the relatively flat area on the bealach. We were pleased to be above the steep ground for a while but there was no sign of any significant snowfields. We headed up the lower slopes of Bein Ime in search of a decent spot to build our shelter and eventually found some patches of wet sugary snow in the area that I'd expected to be loaded. It was now clear that the rain that had fallen earlier hadn't been falling as snow even on higher ground and the impressive cover of a few days ago had been stripped by the deluge.
We had a conference to decide what to do and settled on trying to build an igloo like shelter. We knew that if the worst came to the worst we could retreat back down to the car but we were reluctant to give up without a fight. I have only built an igloo once before (when I was a kid growing up in Yorkshire) and the snow wasn't really solid enough to make proper snow bricks but using a folding saw and our snow shovels we set to work learning by trial and error what would work and what wouldn't. It only seemed like a short time until we reached the stage where I had to build myself into the igloo while Shuzz passed the blocks over the walls to me but in fact it was getting very late. Finally Shuzz placed the last block on the top and I was sealed inside. I'd taken the saw in with me and cut a doorway to the outside world then we had a celebratory brew while moving our gear into the igloo.
When we checked the time we were both amazed to find it was one in the morning, it had taken ages to build the igloo! We wasted no time in moving into our tiny haven
Once inside we climbed into our sleeping bags, we'd both been sweating with the effort of constructing the igloo and knew we'd quickly cool down once the hard work was completed. I was toasty in my down sleeping bag and Goretex bivi bag and Shuzz assured me he was fine as well despite only having a synthetic bag and using a mansize polybag as a bivi.
I slept for a while then some strange sixth sense woke me, I could hear Shuzz moving about a lot and he didn't sound comfy but when I asked if he was okay he said he was. Despite his answer I wasn't convinced, Shuzz is the kind of guy who'll suffer in silence rather than feeling that he was being a nuisance and when I spoke to him some more his answers weren't making much sense. I know the warning signs for hypothermia well and the alarm bells started ringing straight away, I took this picture of him and I don't think you need to be a genius to work out that he doesn't look too good!
All the years of conditioning swung into effect and I got the stove on for a hot drink and gave him all my spare clothing. After a couple of hot chocolates and with the effect of the extra layers he quickly started to recover and described to me the strange sensation he'd experienced which he hadn't realised was the onset of hypothermia.

Once I was happy Shuzz was okay again we settled back down and with the extra clothing he was able to survive the night and get some sleep. The situation was never that desperate, in a worst case scenario I'd have got him up and walked him back off the hill confident that the movement would have warmed him up again (the temperature wasn't that cold outside). Nevertheless it shows how quickly hypothermia can take effect if you become damp.
Morning came and the lack of snow on the hill became blatantly apparent with the daylight.
 We packed up and Shuzz felt the need to have a token slide having carried the board all the way up!
We posed by our little igloo for a few last pictures before retracing our steps from the night before.
We set off back down the corrie to the car, you can see the steep headwall section behind Shuzz in this photo.
We still laugh about this trip to this day, it really was a comedy of errors but we both still got a lot out of it and learned some valuable lessons. Realising the ambition to sleep in a snow hole would have to wait for another day.
To be continued.................................................................

Monday, 14 November 2011

The autumn wallaby cruise.

Graham mentioned to me a while ago that he'd like to see the wallabies that live on an island on Loch Lomond and at the recent OCSG meet at Coniston a few others expressed an interest in a November trip as well. Over the last few weeks we've been chatting online and arranging the trip and although a few potential wallaby spotters had to drop out due to other commitments, the trip was scheduled for last weekend.
On Thursday night I was working night shift so needed a few hours sleep on Friday morning prior to setting out. Andy drove up to Scotland on Thursday evening and slept in his car at Luss overnight so I planned to meet him around lunchtime on Friday.  I managed to get a parking space at Aldochlay when I arrived there at eleven thirty on Friday morning and set about assembling my canoe for sailing then loading it up. As I'd coordinated the trip I felt duty bound to provide a few home comforts for the wallaby safari participants so my canoe was groaning under the strain of all the gear that I struggled to fit into it. The glimpses I'd had of the water out in the exposed sections of the loch had looked fairly windswept and rough as I'd driven to Aldochlay so I was a little concerned about sailing such a laden boat. A sea kayaker I spoke to at the put in said that he'd been to Luss earlier and decided not to launch there as large waves were breaking on the beach which added to my trepidation. I hoped that Andy had managed to make it safely out to the sheltered bay we'd chosen to camp in earlier that morning. One advantage I had on my side was local knowledge though so I set off north to gain some shelter from the strong south easterly wind. The wind was light and flukey and sailing was tricky but the water was fairly calm in the lee of Inchtavannach. As I turned south through the narrows and resorted to paddle sailing a text came in from Andy saying that he'd been out sailing in five foot swells in the morning after launching at Luss but hadn't taken his kit out to the island yet. I phoned him back and it turned out that due to us having crossed wires he'd been waiting for me to join him at Luss. He didn't think he'd be able to get off the beach in the big waves in a fully loaded canoe so we arranged for him to drive back to Aldochlay while I went and dumped my kit at the campsite before heading back to meet up with him. Forty minutes later as I sailed back towards Aldochlay I saw Andy's sail emerging from the bay and we soon met up and headed back towards Inchconnachan. We decided to try sailing around the eastern side of the island to save having to paddle through the narrows (despite the fact we could see big waves and white horses on the unsheltered eastern aspect). As we started to become exposed to the strong wind the waves grew and the gusts became more ferocious making for thrilling sailing but the canoes coped with the roller coaster ride well despite shipping lots of water. We both arrived at the campsite grinning from ear to ear, it'd had only been a short sail but what it lacked in duration it made up for in excitement. I'd originally hoped we would be able to sail on Friday afternoon but as it was dull and overcast the light was starting to fade by half past two so we elected to set up base camp in the remaining daylight. I put up my hammock while Andy pitched his tent then we joined forces to set up the huge tarp I'd bought to use as a communal shelter. By five o'clock it was completely dark so we sat about chatting for a while before lighting the firebox to cook dinner. Graham phoned to say that himself and Christine expected to arrive around ten the next morning so we arranged for him to text once they'd got parked up. Andy and I sat around the fire until about ten thirty hoping to be visited by a wallaby but despite Andy having a sighting when he disturbed one on the beach none graced our camp with their presence so we turned in.
I awoke around seven thirty and lazed in my hammock enjoying the beautiful morning and view out into the bay until I heard Andy get up at eight. We had breakfast and decided that a trip to Balmaha on the east shore of the loch was on the cards. Graham phoned at half nine to say that he was parked at Aldochlay so myself and Andy got sorted out and headed out to meet up with Graham and Christine.
 The sailing was nice and steady down towards the narrows.
Once we'd sailed through and emerged on the other side we were completely sheltered and the water barely had a ripple on it, we started to paddle the canoes as Graham and Christine appeared in the distance paddling towards us.
 Once we'd met up and said hello we all headed back through the narrows where the wind picked up once more to give a nice sail back to camp.
As we all pitched in to help it didn't take long to get Graham and Christine's tents put up.
 Once that was done and their kit was all put away we set off to sail across to Balmaha. It was nice to be the person with the local knowledge for a change and be able to act as a sort of guide.

The weather was beautiful and once we'd navigated through the narrow straits known as "the Geggles" we picked up a good breeze and enough chop to make sailing really enjoyable.
We turned downwind between Inchfad and Inchcailloch and had fun surfing the swell for a while as we headed for Balmaha in the shadow of Conic Hill.
As we rounded the corner of Inchcailloch and turned into the straits of Balmaha we were sheltered from the wind again so had to paddle into the harbour past the anglers and tourists on the shore. We pulled up the canoes and walked the 100metres or so to the Oak Tree Inn. It was so warm and pleasant in the afternoon sunshine that we elected to sit outside for lunch. I've heard a lot of good things about the Oaktree Inn and the food we had was very enjoyable. I had a prawn and smoked salmon sandwich while Graham had locally caught haggis(?) with neeps and tatties served with a whisky sauce, Andy had a cheeseburger and chips and Christine a chick pea curry which all looked delicious.

It was tempting to linger in the sun and have a few (more) pints but although it still had plenty of warmth the sun was getting low in the sky and the wind had dropped completely so we decided to set off in anticipation of a long paddle home.
As we approached the Geggles once more the wind started to fill in so I veered off around the southern side of Inchmoan hoping that we would be able to sail the rest of the way back rather than having to paddle on the lee side of the island. I hoped that Graham and Andy would realise what I was doing as they were heading back the other way. I was relieved to see them turning back upwind and heading towards me. The wind played ball until I rounded the corner back into the lagoon between Inchmoan, Inchtavannach and Inchconachan when it dropped again so my plan proved to be a partial success.
As we all beached our canoes back at camp and furled our sails the sky to the west started to change colour and create a stunning reflection in the mirror like water.
We'd been discussing the meal for Saturday evening prior to the trip, I was given a dutch oven as a present earlier this year and still hadn't used it so I proposed making a big communal stew. In the event Graham brought a rabbit, some steak and the ingredients to make dumplings and I brought some beef olives plus we both had assorted vegetables. After some debate we settled on Graham making rabbit stew with potatoes, carrots and parsnips in port wine on the Trangia while I made a Guiness, steak and beef olive casserole with carrots and mushrooms in the dutch oven on the fire (to which Graham would add his dumplings later). One thing was certain we weren't going to go hungry! The good thing about meals like this is that all the ingredients could be added and left to simmer away leaving us to chat and enjoy pre-dinner drinks around the fire while being tantalised by the occasional aroma of the cooking food.  

Once it was ready we all helped ourselves to both stews which were delicious. Afterwards Andy provided bananas with cream and After Eight Mints for desert.
One of the ideas behind the trip was to enable Andy, Graham and Christine to see the wallabies. Andy had caught fleeting glimpses of them on Friday night and Saturday morning but I was hoping one or two would come right into our camp in the evening (which has often happened before when I've used this campsite). Sure enough, later on a tell tale rustle in the bushes heralded the arrival of this little fella.

   He seemed to enjoy eating the leftover dumpling and banana which we threw out for him and stayed nearby for a couple of hours (coming within touching distance of Andy and I after Graham and Christine had retired to their tents later on).
With a selection of drinks flowing freely and plenty of wood to keep the fire blazing we had a memorable evening sitting around and chatting.
 It was a lovely night, despite being clear it wasn't too cold and the full moon came up lighting us in it's silvery glow.
Needless to say it ended up being a late night with myself and Andy finally going to bed around two in the morning.
I didn't wake until eight thirty on Sunday morning but I rushed to get up as I wanted to say cheerio to Andy who had to leave early. I think there were a few fuzzy heads in evidence so plenty of brews to rehydrate were the order of the day!
Andy set off on time (an impressive feat as he'd single-handedly polished off a fair bit of a bottle of whisky the night before!) It was sad to see him go but he had a prearranged concert to attend so had to depart.
We ate breakfast and packed up our kit in the dry (which is always a bonus). Once more I was amazed how heavily laden my canoe was (I think it's the most gear I've carried)!
 The plan was to go back to the put in and drop our camping gear then go for a sail in unladen boats.
Once we got back to the cars we offloaded all the gear, had a hasty lunch then set off again. We headed south in very light winds but once we rounded the southwest corner of Inchtavannach we picked up a really nice steady F3 south easterly.
 We sailed past the tiny island of Inchgalbraith with it's ruined castle and landed briefly on Inchmoan before having a fast sail back downwind and eventually back to Aldochlay.

The light was starting to fail as we dismantled the canoes and loaded them onto our roof bars so we'd timed our return perfectly. I said goodbye to Graham and Christine before making the brief journey home.
It can be a bit of a worry when you organise a trip like this that it may fail to live up to expectations, however the whole weekend was fantastic with varied sailing conditions, amazingly benevolent weather (for November), great company and the all important appearance of a wallaby!