The plan was to get up two mountains. Beinn a Chaorainn and Beinn Teallach sit close to Spean Bridge and even closer to Roybridge where I had stayed only two weeks before. Leaving the car at just before 7:00am meant I had a good jump on my normal start time of 9:00am. Also by sleeping at the car park I was a lot more refreshed than if I had just done an early morning three hour drive to get there.
Some of you may have caught the video I made on IGTV of the morning views during the ascent. If not, you didn’t miss much; there was none. I only got the briefest of glimpses of neighbouring Beinn Teallach before it disappeared into the misty morning. And it kept coming, the result being that when the dog and I summited Beinn a Chaorainn around 10:00am we couldn’t see a thing. We were completely inside a cloud.
Now I knew this cloud would burn off as the sun got higher and the day went on, but it didn’t look like it was moving anytime soon. After a snack at the cairn and a few biscuits for Thorin it was time to move on. We headed in the direction we needed to go in order to reach the bealach, the pass or part of the mountain that connects it to others; in this case the elusive Beinn Teallach.
We walked for a 100m or so and then discovered that we were far too close to the crags on the eastern slopes than I wanted to be. I made the decision then to return to the cairn while we still could. Once there I sat down and wrote this in my notebook. I type it up here unedited.
“Sitting here writing in the summit cairn of Beinn a Chaorainn, part of the west Monadhliath group. The cloud cover hasn’t improved, although I can see round about me at the top here, a little further down where we need to find the path is thick with cloud. It is impossible to see where you are going. I have my compass but I’m still not risking it until I see. May have to leave Beinn Teallach till another day. I know from experience not to push this. It is easy to get disorientated and lost in this cover. I know it will lift later but don’t really want/can’t wait around. Thorin gets restless too. Climbing a mountain directly from a road or obvious landmark is one thing but trying to find paths or bealachs or waypoints in thick cloud is another. Your head starts to mess with you and you make mistakes. I’m not into that.”
I’ve walked many mountains in fog and cloud, and I’m sure I will again but the experience I refer to in my notes there is from one particular day on one of the mountains around Bridge of Orchy. I forget which one it was so long ago, but on the summit plateau a cloud turned what had been a straightforward day into a possible missing person and dog case. I kept on tromping along thinking I was going the right way to get back to the road, trusting in my inner compass which is ridiculously good. Or so I believed.
Luckily I bumped into some other walkers coming from the opposite direction and we talked about where they had come from. I said I was about to head downwards that way and pointed into oblivion. They told me in no uncertain terms should I be going the way I intended. If I was to put their speech into the written word it would look like this. “NO DON’T GO THAT WAY YOU IDIOT!!!” Turns out that the edges and cliffs I was cleverly avoiding by my route down were right in the direction I was heading. Had I continued, I would either be dead or severely injured with no chance of rescue; or if I was lucky, wandering completely lost in the wilds of Rannoch Moor.
You learn from your mistakes. I was lucky I met those folk. I hot footed it in the right direction, the opposite from where I was going and descended the mountain as quick as I could. I came out miles away from where I started but at least I knew where I was. This is how I ended doing a part of the West Highland Way, completely by accident.
Returning to the original story, I made the decision to turn back and descend the mountain. I could still picture the way, knew where I had come from and how to get back. Nevertheless the mind games still continued as I tried unsuccessfully to look for the markers I had seen on the way up. I knew I would struggle in finding that route to the next mountain whilst inside a cloud. I’d just have to come back another day and that’s not really a bad thing. Within an hour and a half we were back down on the forest track and the mountain was clearing. But that head thing where I wasn’t convinced myself that I was on the right route was still with me during most of that time.
Had I been younger and more reckless I definitely would have kept going but I know I made the right choice. Not having anyone to bounce ideas off didn’t help but I’m happy to go back and get up Beinn Teallach another time. In this case the early bird most certainly did not catch the worm.
Currently listening to Manowar