Distance: 14.5 miles (as measured in straight lines!)
Weather: mainly snow (rain lower down), but with some short fine spells later
Number of times I fell over: 5!!
Three hours into this morning I had to wonder why we were slogging through snow, in attrocious visibility and huffing and puffing our way from sea level to top out at just under 3400', when we could just have taken the valley path and been at Alltbeithe in time for lunch. I'm not sure what the enjoyment is of walking up hills when you can't see anything of them, but my incentive was simply to gain a bit more fitness before we hit the PCT at the end of the month.
Even though Shiel Bridge is one of the most popular signing out points (56 people this year), it had seemed fairly quiet last night and although we saw a few people milling around as we signed out, and passed a couple on our way to Morvich, we didn't then see any other Challengers until Alltbeithe, some 14 miles later.
We did see one day-walker. He'd been ahead of us heading up Beinn Fhada, but having reached the snow line, he had thought better of his excursion and bid a retreat. "Wise man!" I was to think, about half an hour later.
Despite the heavy snow falling, the lack of visibility, and the depth of snow having completely obliterated the path, we managed to make it to the top without too much fuss. Fortunately it's a hill where the 'just keep heading uphill' method of navigation doesn't lead you into danger (okay, so we may have been a tiny bit more technical about it than that).
Incredibly, despite being lashed by snow on the way up, when we got to the summit, there was a lull. With not a breath of wind, but with fat snowflakes gently falling, we sat and had elevenses.
More incredible was that within a couple of minutes of leaving the summit, the cloud broke up enough for us to be able to see our route ahead, along the ridge heading generally east.
Our optimism that it was the materialisation of the forecast improvement in the weather was misplaced, as a while later we found ourselves being absolutely blasted by horizontal snow whilst wading through knee deep snow. That wasn't the worst part of the day, mind. That came at what appeared to be the trickiest bit of the ridge (or do I just mean 'narrowest'?) when conditions approached white-out.
Picking our way oh-so-carefully along, barely able to see a hand in front of our faces, suddenly the day transformed. We went from near white-out to stunning views in an inconceivably short timeframe. And what views! Absolutely indescribably magnificent. Stunning. Gorgeous. (Sorry - my phone was safely tucked away in my pack, and I didn't get it out for a blog photo.)
Suddenly all of that effort of the ascent, the stinging snow in the face and the wading through knee deep white stuff was entirely worthwhile.
The views stayed with us (bar during a few passing showers) as we finished the last bit of the ridge and set about the treacherous descent. A thin layer of slushy snow, covering the slippiest grass and mud known to man led to us slip sliding our way down.
Alltbeithe Youth Hostel had been in view from our lunch spot (a late lunch at 14.45 - no way were we pausing in the earlier conditions), but it seemed to take an age to get there. We'd earmarked the place for a nice sociable cup of tea with those Challengers who were staying there tonight, but it wasn't to be. The hostel wasn't opening until 5pm, and we hadn't planned to camp in its immediate vicinity, so we weren't feeling inclined to hang around for 45 minutes. Onwards we went.
We didn't go very much further. A flat bit of grass was found (not that they're lacking hereabouts) and up we popped the tent before the next shower hit. It's nice and warm in here when the sun comes out, but as we type the sleety rain is bouncing off the nylon.
Allegedly, tomorrow's weather will be better, before it take a nose-dive on Sunday.
(Conrad - hope the knee is showing signs of recovery. We thought of you today: "Conrad's been here" I said, as we stood atop Beinn Fhada.)
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