Chasing Light - Part 1
I had a dose of cabin fever brought on by a long winter, and the politics bouncing around the web were leaving me feeling a little down in the dumps. Though I was thinking a lot about adventures in the context of upcoming film projects for 2017, I wasn’t having any.
I booked some time away and packed the van. I had an idea of a destination but no agenda to speak of, just some time on my hands and a need to familiarise myself with the mountains again. Over the course of a long weekend I travelled through the Galloway hills up the coast to Torridon where I climbed An Teallach. I then headed over Applecross and through Glen Shiel to Glencoe and Glen Etive before heading home to the Lake District.
I grew up across the Solway Firth from Dumfries and Galloway and could see the distant hills on a clear day as I drove to school. My mum had friends on a farm on the far coast and I learned to Mackerel fish on long lines from Palnackie and took rides on the quad bike to bring in the sheep. Later, I had my first experiences of festivals run by the New Agers at Orchardton Hall.
All of these memories contribute to a scattered patchwork of identity, and gave me reason enough to head through the Galloway Hills and see them properly as an adult. They were much like the northern fells where I grew up on the edge of the Lake District with small well-kept communities tucked away round each corner. The odd tell tale sign of the ‘alternative’ folk living in the hills and woods was still there. And the trees, the trees are spectacular…….
An Teallach looked pretty friendly from that distance, on it’s own at the end of a long road. I had slept in the van and cooked breakfast in the sunshine before setting off again, keen to reach Dundonnell and start walking. I sorted kit and set off on the long slog up the adjacent valley.
I’ve done very little in the hills over winter so wasn’t feeling at all fit and I knew the ridge of An Teallach was a really big day in winter. With this in mind I opted to bivvy high up and split the walk in to two days, this would allow me to catch a sunrise on the mountain too which seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
I was turning over the classic ‘have I bitten off more than I can chew?’ monologue in my head as I trudged up to the col at the head of the valley. My bag felt heavy and the only person I had bumped into on the way up had informed me that it was going to be -10 during the night, not what my forecast had said. I worked hard to control my anxiety about the night time temperature, I wasn’t going back down so I would just have to deal with it. As I stepped past the cairns at the top of the col I felt a huge sense of relief, the sun was setting over the hills ahead and spreading orange light across the snow.
On reflection I realise that the contentment I felt related mostly to the presence of snow. Winter in the Lake District has been little to speak of, just a handful of hard frosts and one walk home from the pub through dinner plate snowflakes that would never settle. The loss of our winters has left me feeling subtlety unsettled, nostalgic for ‘no-school’ ski days behind the house and a little sad about the future. I have skied since I was 4, snow features in many of my fondest memories, from my seasons in the Alps to mountain days in the lakes. It’s hard to contemplate winters at home without it.
The sun set on one side and moon rose on the other. I found a suitable place to dig a bivvy spot out of the wind and settled in for a chilly night. There was no one else around for miles and miles and I watched tiny lights appear around Ullapool to the west and Inverness to the east.
I sat for a long time and looked out over the view, tracing chains of tiny islands out towards Stornaway……
I’d had very little to do in the dark and cold once I had cooked tea and made my bed so I finished off a hip flask of whisky and fell asleep by 7.30pm. I was warm enough but slept badly, as I do almost every time I bivvy.
I woke up around midnight having dreamed about slowly sliding off a precipice and being chased by some kind of large jungle animal. As I sat up I realised that my bivvy bag was covered in ice, and in the very unlikely occurrence that I wriggled off my snowy shelf in my sleep, I would slide like an iced torpedo down a snow bank, tumble through some rocks and possibly fall off the front of the mountain. I hadn’t thought about that the night before. I built a little fence with my axe and walking poles and tried, with only a degree of success, to sleep again.
I peered out of the tiny hole in my sleeping bag and watched my breath rise in the headtorch beam. It was still dark but I couldn’t sleep any more. Looking at the time on my phone I was a little disappointed to see that it was only 3am. I slowly unwrapped myself from layers of down filled warmth and put on all the clothes I had brought up the mountain, slipping my warm feet in to boots that were frozen stiff and glittering with ice crystals.
I hadn’t checked the sunrise time this far north but figured I could kill some time cooking pasta and packing up, I should start to see some light by 6.30am perhaps. It was cold enough to shut my headtorch battery down and I was surprised to see, when my eyes adjusted, that the whole mountain was illuminated by the full moon. I walked up to the summit of Bidein a’ Ghlas Thuill and the ridge stretched out glowing in front of me. It was ghostly and spectacular, but I had spent 11 hours in the dark and I was looking forward to some daylight.
After hours of pacing, jogging and bouncing on the spot to keep warm and sane in the darkness the sky started to get lighter and the sun began to burn through the clouds that floated around the summits. I had been hanging around for 5 hours waiting for the sunrise and was keen to get going, but the ridge was still buried in cloud.