Mon 5th & Tue 6th August 2013
Quite a few years back now, I was in Conistone in the Lake District browsing the boating shops and saw they were selling inflatable boats – both kayaks and rowing boats. Also for quite a few years, I’d had a yen to approach the remote Munro of Sgurr Mor across Loch Quoich instead of using any of the long walking routes. Being fairly insane by character, I suddenly had the mad idea that an inflatable rowing boat was my solution!
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As I often do my Munro-bagging with Richard and as he was with me in the shop, I sounded him out about whether he would actually get in an inflatable rowing boat across a Scottish loch. He looked quite hesitant but eventually said he ‘probably would’. That was my decision-maker so I promptly bought a 3-person inflatable rowing boat. It was pretty cheap – probably under £50 for the boat, oars, inflation foot pump and the all-important life-jackets (complete with whistles – a nice touch). The boat came in a lovely little plastic carrying pouch about 14 x 9 inches and the oars were thin and light and probably about 4 foot long.
Of the few peaks I had left by this summer, Sgurr Mor and its neighbouring Corbett of Sgurr Fhuaran were uppermost in my mind. I’d been doing some Munros around Loch Quoich and studying routes and could see there was a beauty of a route up the front of the Corbett, over to the Munro, back again to the Corbett and then a lovely-looking east ridge down to Glen Kingie. The whole route was on great paths and only 8 miles or so – ideal! It would be a 2 mile row across the loch and, knowing my little inflatable would only sit on top of the water rather than in it, I knew I needed as calm a day as possible.
I sounded Richard out again – this time he was adamantly out! No way was he going two miles across a deep Scottish loch (with a hydro-generation plant at the huge dam on the end – presumably with anti-boat grids) in a little rubber boat – nor did he fancy sleeping rough down Loch Quoich! He said I was completely mad… that decided me – I had to do it – I just love mad schemes!
After my forays down Glen Affric (in the last 2 reports) I collected a MWIS (mountain weather) forecast from the campsite owner – calm and settled with the wind having negligible effect – and set off for the 50 mile drive around to my car-camping spot down Loch Quoich. This is by a small roadside woodland just after the long northern arm of the loch and is by a very calm and quiet bay of the loch. On arrival I was a little worried that it didn’t look as calm as forecast – it was lovely and sunny though…
No matter, I got the boat pumped up and loaded everything into it for the short carry down a track to the loch. I was slightly perturbed to read a sticker on the boat as I pumped saying it wasn’t suitable for use on ‘open water’ – oooerr! I’d packed my hiking boots into a bag as I didn’t think it was sensible to wear them – there are two reasons for this – firstly, you will get wet feet getting into the boat and, secondly, you don’t want to end up in the loch in heavy hiking boots, even with a life-jacket! I’d also packed the air-pump in the bag but had left my proper film camera in the car – I wasn’t going to risk that in such a risky venture – I took the cheap digi-camera instead.
Now Richard had said I should have had a practice locally at handling the boat but, as I had the calm bay to start off in, I decided that would be fine. It was exceedingly calm and not very deep. I clambered into the boat and soon realised waterproof trousers are a good idea as, because you get in with wet feet and are sat on the floor of the boat, you get a wet bum!
Setting off rowing I soon found that these boats handle completely differently to your normal wooden rowing boats. For a start, a stroke with one oar, isntead of altering your course slightly, actually turns you nearly 90 degrees in one stroke! My progress was very erratic to start and I hoped no-one was watching – luckily, few people frequent the glen at all – in fact, I only saw one car the whole day…
By the end of the bay I was making better progress and actually managing to mainly row in a straight line as I passed the headland to cross the wide river inlet to reach the second point at the end of Sron Lice na Fearna. The water was a bit choppy here and I was starting to worry slightly what the main loch crossing would be like.
By the time I left the next point and reached the main body of the loch I could see I was probably in a bit of trouble. The wind was blowing pretty hard down the loch towards the dam and there were big waves – probably 2 to 3 feet high! The waves were running before the wind down the loch so I was having to row across quite a strong current and the waves. This meant that, some of the time, one of my oars was in mid-air as the boat rocked hard over each wave. Some of the bigger waves almost managed to get into the boat and I worried that I hadn’t brought any kind of baling device – I just had my flask cup!
I also noticed at this point that I’d left the safety-cap off the inflation valve – that doesn’t really matter as the valve is one way but I’d have preferred to have used the extra cap rather than totally trust the valve – oh well, fighting with those conditions in the middle of a loch wasn’t the place to stow the oars and try to reach a valve at the far end of the boat…
I bobbed around like a cork in the water feeling the boat flexing beneath me for each wave – I didn’t actually mind that feeling as I trusted the boat’s buoyancy but can imagine Richard would have completely flipped out in those conditions. By the middle of the loch, however, I was getting pretty worried – not scared as such but realised I wasn’t really attempting a very sensible venture in the conditions. I was determined to at least reach the far shore though and rowed resolutely on, the wind and waves sometimes turning my boat 90 degrees and trying to send me off down the loch instead of across it.
After around an hour, determination and bloody-mindedness won out and I eventually reached the far shore. Unfortunately, it was at this point I decided I ought to really turn round and row back across the loch immediately. My reasoning was that, after five hours or so walking the two hills, the conditons could worsen considerably and I could end up unable to get back at all.
I headed back the other way – the conditions were no easier and the waves seemed even worse. At one point near the far shore, I looked behind me for the point I needed to get round and saw it way back up the loch – I’d drifted around quarter of a mile down the loch without noticing. It was pretty difficult reaching the shore and the sanctuary of the two bays as the wind seemed to be bouncing off the edges of the loch and funneling everything into the middle. For quite a few minutes I was pretty worried I wouldn’t make it to any shoreline but grimly persisted. I was also getting cramp in my hands from the narrowness of the oars (I have very long fingers) but, despite the pain, I kept rowing – I noticed that, when ignored, it eventually wore off…
At last I reached the sanctuary of the first bay and landed the boat. I carried it back round the final bay – luckily it’s fine to carry inflated. Oh well, that was my dream route aborted – I was pleased with myself that I’d reached the far shore though and even more pleased I’d returned safely to land. It had taken me an hour each way so it was too late in the day to do more than drive around to Strathan at the end of Loch Arkaig for the next day’s attempt at the hills via the normal, much longer route…
I didn’t want to arrive down Strathan too early as there is absolutely nothing to do down there and couldn’t get any petrol at Invergarry or Spean Bridge so diverted all the way down to Fort William for a touristy break. I had a rather dry macaroni pie and chips from the chippy, a soup and lemon meringue pie from Morrisons and generally sat around in the bright sunshine for a couple of hours.
When I set off down Loch Arkaig though, the weather changed for the worse – it still looked fine down the Great Glen but where I was headed looked murky and gloomy The drive along the loch is on a tortuously bendy and humpy little road only just wide enough for the car (with passing places though). I always marvel at how they got the static caravans down there which (illegally?) camp down on the lochside. I was to find out in the morning just what huge vehicles do actually use the road!
By the time I reached the end of the loch 14 miles down the glen, I was feeling gloomy and depressed. I usually love Strathan but that night it just felt lonely and isolated. My isolation wasn’t helped by the last people in the carpark packing up and leaving as I arrived. There was just my car and an empty one – presumably someone bothying – when I turned in for the night. There has been a huge carpark made at the end of the loch this year – previously you had to fight for space on the road end – now there is space for around 14 cars and one sheltered little corner, which I bagged as it was becoming a very cold wind.
During the night it started to rain quite a bit but I generally slept very well until, around 0615, I was awoken by the sound of a heavy engine. I looked up and saw a huge logging lorry and trailer looming over me as it approached the locked gate. I would truly hate to meet one of those down the Loch Arkaig road – it’s barely wide enough in most of the passing places to meet other cars!
As it was still raining and the cloud was right down, I promptly went back to sleep for a few more hours, eventually getting up just after nine. The cloud had lifted ever so slighly and there was a shaft of sun on Sgurr Thuilm opposite – just the one mind…
By the time I’d washed and dressed and was getting my breakfast and making a flask, other cars started to arrive. No-one was going up my hill though I do prefer company when it’s claggy.
It was probably nearly ten by the time I set off up the Glen Dessary estate track to Glendessary Lodge where a stalkers path was shown on the map to take me over the pass into Glen Kingie. When I arrived at the Lodge there was no sign of the path nor any marker cairns or other signs as to where to set off. I tried various abortive routes before giving up and asking the following couple for directions – they pointed out the route higher up the hill – put it this way, the start wasn’t anywhere the map said! For folks’ future reference, it starts through the bracken immediately after crossing the wooden river bridge and not after the buildings as the map says…
I set off past some shooting targets by the first buildings and luckily that turned into a proper stony track up to the col – there was also one the other side of the burn. The path continued across the long, boggy, peat-hagged col where it should have started to bear right (east) to descend to Kinbreak Bothy. However, the path I was on continued sketchily left towards the head of Glen Kingie – that was where I needed to be so I followed it until I lost it near the bottom of the hill.
I’d originally been going to do the full route on the stalkers path up over Sgurr Beag – I knew it would be a great track. As I descended to the glen, however, the lazy streak I seem to have acquired this year about climbing ‘up’ manifested istelf. I just couldn’t persuade myself to add in the extra height needed to climb Sgurr Beag first and, in the end, just set off up a burnside heading up to the left-hand side of the corrie under Sgurr Mor’s summit.
I was ultimately glad I’d chosen this route and this particular burn as it ended most advantageously in the far left of the corrie where I could see an easy grassy ramp up between Sgurrs Beag and Mor to pick up the stalkers track again. The exit up the corrie wall followed a dry burn at a very easy angle for the very short ascent to the col where the stalkers path hove into view.
The path was absolutely great and took me effortlessly in zig-zags up the steep, rocky south ridge of Sgurr Mor to the summit (which was in thick clag as usual). Before the clag rolled in completely I was interested to see the far western end of Loch Quoich with its old vehicle tracks and dam – a very remote corner indeed.
As the weather was pretty horrid at the summit I didn’t stop but just touched the cairn, got my compass out and headed off for the descent south-east to the col between the Munro and Corbett. The descent was pretty steep and fairly long but the track again made it all easy and safe. I wished I could see where I’d rowed across to the previous day but couldn’t see the loch at all any more
At the col I exited the clag and could see the Corbett – it was flirting with cloud but generally staying out – it looked pretty easy. I can’t imagine people just doing Sgurr Mor and then descending from this col back to Glen Kingie without including the Corbett – madness!
It was a nice walk along the grassy ridge and an easy climb to the Corbett where I was hoping to pick up the eastern ridge to descend to Kinbreak and then exit Glen Kingie via the other pass to Strathan. When I reached the summit, however, it wasn’t to be. I set off in a generally easterly direction but it was pathless and intermittently claggy. I could see a wide area of grass a few hundred feet lower but no obvious eastern ridge. I was very disappointed as the ridge had looked so pronounced from below when I did my Gairich walk. As there are bad crags on one side of it, I didn’t really want to descend so far down the hill and then not find my route. Incidentally, back home I looked at my 1:25000 map instead (I’d been carrying the 1:50000) and all became clear – I would have been able to make the descent if I’d had the other map…
I’d seen the northern path off the Corbett from the summit but that would take me too far out of my way really – it was around a 16 mile day anyway and I didn’t really want to add to that in the horrible weather. My feet were already soaked from my pathless ascent through long grass into the corrie earlier.
In the end I reluctantly abandoned the east ridge, such as it was, and reascended back to the summit to descend to the previous col and another wet, pathless descent to Glen Kingie. This route is the normal descent so I’m surprised some kind of path hasn’t formed yet but I suppose there’s just too much grass to choose from.
By the foot of the corrie my feet were wringing and the water was part-way up the inside of my boots – ugh. It’s quite a while since I’ve had wet feet on a walk now and I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t looking forward to the extremely wet and pathless slog back up the col for the pass through to Glendesssary Lodge again and this time I wouldn’t have a path until I found the one at the top of the pass – the one I’d used earlier was too sketchy.
Luckily the climb back up to the pass wasn’t too hard but the grass was long and the bogs were bad. It was also raining steadily now… It took me ages of floundering among peat hags and deep bogs through the pass before I found any kind of path and I was pretty grumpy and fed-up. I was also cursing the fact that I hadn’t just done the whole walk from Glen Kingie via the track at the east end of Gairich – that would have been good paths all the way and I could have camped at my favourite spot by Loch Quoich where I’d set out in my boat.
I eventually found the outward path back down to the lodge and sat awhile on the river bridge while I wrung out my socks and had my first break for coffee and a biscuit. One of the Lodge inhabitants came by on a quad bike leading a visiting car to the lodge – even he looked sympathetic at the soggy state of me as I wrung my socks out.
Oh well, it was only another mile back to the car now and on a great track but with only marginally less soggy feet. I plodded back and was very pleased to see my waiting car. I’d been about 6 hours – not bad for the walk I’d done – it’s certainly not one I’d repeat via that route though – sorry Sgurr Mor!
Postscript: even I thought I was quite mad attempting my inflatable boat trip but obviously not as mad as this chap!