The Angry Corrie 10: Dec 1992-Jan 1993

'A cold coming we had of it'

Hamish Brown is becoming something of a regular in our Festive Season issue. A year ago, in TAC4, he bemoaned the chill wind blowing through the access debate - whereas now, as a kind of 'chitterati', he turns to real winter weather...

Fuar Tholl (the cold hole) is a fairly shivery sort of name for a hill and certainly, the first time I set eyes on it, I was doing my share of shivering.

Three of us, young gangrels, had been walking and climbing our way southwards from Ullapool to Skye one summer holiday, a stravaig which finally ended at a camping spot in Skye when one of the party scalded himself badly by sitting down on his plate of soup. The scabs crinkled for weeks afterwards.

We had fled a midgy Torridon camp to head over the Coulin Pass to Achnashellach, but then diverted up by the Eas an Dorcha to attempt Beinn Liath Mhor. We just made the end bump, and had a brief Cortez-like view across to Sgurr Ruadh and Fuar Tholl, before hail and rain lashed us. With ex-WD gear and donkey jackets we, perforce, fled and hypothermia was kept at bay by a non-stop run down to the Coulin road. The old Achnashellach hostel, black kettle singing on black iron range, was a marvellous welcome some hours later.

I've had more than my ration of Achnashellach rain and midges since, but at least there's Gerry's idiosyncratic hostel to provide a haven. Fuar Tholl scowls down at the hostel, a grim presence we have grown to appreciate rather as small boys' frightening uncles can turn out to be cheery old souls later on. For almost twenty years we were based over Christmas in Glen Carron so Fuar Tholl naturally became associated with the festive season. I've made several Christmas Day ascents, often in marvellous winter conditions but, last time, there was only a dusting of powder.

We started early, to make use of the limited daylight, parking the car near Achnashellach Station. One of the party had been there on a previous occasion when I met him, and others, off a train. The train, being late as usual meant the lights on the platform had gone out before it arrived. One of the lads innocently assumed the platform would be longer than the train and stepped out into black space. Once the train drew away we heard the thrashings among the Rhododendron ponticum down the bank and found him, arms and legs waving, pinned like an overturned turtle by the weight of his rucksack.

The dusting of snow on the tops had been rain lower down and the pine forest and deep heather of the initial pull up to Coire Lair soon had us saturated from the thighs down. 'Wet below the waist-line', somebody parodied, 'smelling of vegetation'.

T.S.Eliot's Journey of the Magi is eminently open to hill parody as it begins 'A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / The very dead of winter'. (Being T.S.Eliot this is itself an adaption from a Nativity sermon of Lancelot Andrews, a 17th Century divine.) I'd heard a lad recite the poem a few days earlier at a school Christmas show. I wonder how Eliot would have reacted to the coarse Fife gutturals of the recitation? (I prefer 'The House of Eliott' myself - philistine Ed.)

The path wended up and up to reach secretive Coire Lair. One path broke off, right, through under the neb of Beinn Liath Mhor to Loch Coulin, the main path continued on up the corrie, being squeezed finally between Sgurr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor (the red and the grey) and, twisting and turning, escaping down to Loch Torridon - a grand through route of character. We turned left, on the path up to the col between Fuar Tholl and Sgurr Ruadh, a route which nods across to the Mainreachan Buttress and other fearsome verticalities, which are the joy of the climber. If the cold hole facing Achnashellach looks 'interesting' then these superior crags round the back are 'fascinating'. We raised metaphorical balaclavas and passed by.

The col between the Corbett of Fuar Tholl and the Munro of Sgurr Ruadh (the highest hill between Glen Torridon and Glen Carron) is a wide saddle on which sit a thousand moraine bumps and a thousand lochans. 'Great country for navigation exercises' I thought when I first discovered it, little thinking I'd be having the practical experience myself. On a dank, fog-bound, winter day I'd ascended Fuar Tholl by an 'experimental' route which, in consideration for the safety of others, I'd better leave undescribed. It was loose, steep and dangerous - and a cold coming I had of it. Still, fighting on, I had to reach the summit which I duly did. After I'd blown life back into frozen fingers I searched for my compass and discovered there was no compass as the compass pocket had a hole in it. (A cold hole? - Ed)

The ridge was defined enough down to the saddle but I was very keen to climb Sgurr Ruadh so I tried to grope through that landscape of bumps and hollows. Often the hollows were only discovered by going through the ice into the water and, again and again, my straight line simply went round one particular bump to come on my own footprints again. I eventually won through for the ground rose steeply and, again, going uphill had to lead to the summit. I was tempted to come up the next day when it was clear to study my wandering footprints. The compass was lying on the ground outside Gerry's, having fallen out when I put on my waterproofs.

This day was one of those sunless, leaden days which are rather prevalent in 'the very dead of winter'. The result was strangely beautiful, a sort of Whistler study in grey, the grey tones ranging from glowing silver, in the seas round Skye, through to bruised plum richness in the storm clouds round the old grey heights of Liathach. Wind at higher altitudes had teased the white clouds out into long streamers and then planed them down to elongated ovals, a tapestry effect, or a rich velvet wall covering. The cloud shapes changed at remarkable speed.

We returned to the col and wandered through the innocent stretch of moraines and lochans. I told them of my experience there without a compass. The tightness of the circles I made back onto my own tracks astonished everyone, but I'd had other experiences of the same thing elsewhere so hadn't been surprised at my straying. I won through in the end by looking backwards to ensure my line was straight and even backtracking and using the trail as a line of sight onto some dim feature ahead. There is usually a way out if one doesn't panic. They all promised, sometime, to try a bit of compass-less navigation - on a safer place and with a compass in a pocket with no holes in it. 'Experience is the sum of near misses', as the French say.

Sgurr Ruadh was our limit that day. The weather was heading for a storm and we preferred to be ensconced before Gerry's fire, fed and listening to Sibelius, rather than seeking out any more 'experiences'. There's something smug in having had a good hill day and hearing all hell let loose, once safely 'home'.

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