Monday, 28 September 2015

A Wild Summer

In the last days of September, I'm reflecting on a wild, wild summer.   Since I got back from Malawi at the end of July, my feet have not stopped moving.  I've crammed my life with work and play and not had time to look at this blog, let alone update it... So here I am now, and as the year changes gear and I've finally got time to draw breath. I'm looking forward to a bit of chill out time and a chance to refuel and recouperate, with the prospect of an exciting winter ahead.

Fancy bike socks matching the sky for once.
On the summit of Goatfell, working for Adventure Expeditions.

A girls beach trip, and perfect waves at Machrihanish.
Rainbows and coastal walks.
Watching basking sharks.
Sleeping amongst the granny pines in Glen Lui.
A Bronze expedition in Glen Trool.
A kayak mission to Carradale in perfect conditions
Co leading a walk on the Three Beinns for Arran Mountain Rescue's open day.

A spot of CPD on Ben Nevis with Alan Halewood.
Travelling to Cheshire with my old school bike to ride my first Sportive.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elephants come to visit

A final installment  from Malawi 2015, in the form of a wee report and pics from Liwonde National Park and the R&R phase of Arran High School's expedition, and some thoughts on Cecil the Lion.

We camped in our little tents at Mvuu Camp, perched on the banks of the Shire River.  Mvuu means hippo, and as anticipated we were serenaded day and night by the snorts and roars of neighbouring hippos frolicking on the river banks. I was bowled over by the biodiversity of the place.  In a day of wildlife watching we saw over 50 species of bird and mammal, with kingfishers, night herons, giant crocodiles and various birds of prey all vying for our attention, it was hard to know where to look.

 The stars of the show however were the elephants. On the first night I was woken at about four in the morning to the sound of guards calling softly in to the night.  "Njobvu... Njobvuu..." I listened intently and remembered that this is the Chichewa word for elephant.

What followed was one of the most intense wildlife experiences of my life. Frightening yes, but thrilling too. I became aware of approaching noises, crashing, thudding, and low rumbles.  Elephants are quiet, so this must be a lot of them to make such noise. As the dawn light glimmered, I peered through the zip of my tent and counted.  Fifteen elephants surrounded us, mums with babies. The guards had been calling to a male in must, who they were following around the camp- thankfully he moved on quickly. As group leader I was flummoxed.  What should I do?  Assessing the hazard of a herd of elephants in camp is not something we learn at Mountain leader school! With nowhere else to go I decided it was best not to wake the team and risk upsetting the elephants. At daybreak the herd moved away, and a few of the early risers got to see them as they trundled off through the thorns.

I've been back a couple of weeks, but Liwonde has been very much on my mind since I flew home, especially with all the recent coverage of illegal poaching and trophy hunting in Zimbabwe, which is not far south from Malawi. It appears that the tragic loss of Cecil the lion has gone some way to highlighting the plight of Africa's wildlife. What it has also done, in my mind, is flag up the disconnect between wildlife tourism and ordinary Africans, between poverty and conservation. Most of the people living close to Hwange National Park had never heard of Cecil the Lion. Meanwhile ordinary Zimbabweans endure food shortages, violence and political turmoil.  Interest in wildlife, whether for conservation or hunting, is linked to privilage and seen as a post colonial hangover. I'm as outraged as the next person at the slaughter of Cecil, but he is just one lion among many who will loose their lives this year, and meanwhile wildlife loss on an even more spectacular scale happens outside of the parks, through deforestation as ordinary people cut firewood to sell as charcoal in order to make a living. We must do more for conservation at every level, tackle habitat loss inside and outside of the parks, and to do so, we need to tackle the poverty that aflicts rural communities in Southern Africa.

An organisation that aims to do this is Children in the Wilderness who describe themselves as "a non-profit organisation to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa." Children in the Wilderness is supported by Wilderness Safaris, who run Mvuu camp, where we stayed  at Liwonde.  They bring local children to Liwonde to learn about conservation and the wildlife of the park. They don't just work in Malawi, they can be found as far afield as Namibia, Botswana and the Sechelles.  They support literacy schemes within the schools and through Eco Camps and mentoring. Projects include reforestation initiatives, working to support girls to stay in school and scholarships for deserving students.  If you've been distressed by the fate of Cecil, its worth offering them your support.

Finally, I think we need to put our own house in order.  Hen Harriers are perched on the brink of extinction in England thanks to hunting interests here in the British Isles.  Hunting for fun may seem barbaric, but it is also big business, putting money before conservation interests. This sunday is HEN HARRIER DAY, a day to celebrate one of our most beautiful wild birds, and ask why more isn't being done to protect it.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Fisherman's Rest

Our second block of community work took us to a well established project south of Blantyre called Fisherman's Rest. Wiktor and Sue Chichlowski have been working in the community for thirty years, and have achieved tangible change to the quality of education and opportunities that children receive.
We were excited to learn about a whole raft of schemes that include waterhole maintenance, school meals (via The Good Food Project), library building, poultry husbandry, tree planting and  the My Girl Project, which encourages girls to stay in school when puberty hits. Fisherman's Rest currently work with 22 schools in the area, as well as a community centre called Tilitonse.

Like Dzalanyama, our time here was short. However, this time, we were slotting in to existing work that had started long before our arrival and will continue long after we have left.  We were aware that whilst our presence, in the form of a bit of literacy teaching, hilarious games and English language conversation, are an important part of what happens here, the real hard work is being done by the community, Wiktor, Sue and their tireless staff. However, we brought essential $$ with us, and were made to feel welcome and valued by everyone we met. Wiktor was careful to ensure we could see the big picture, so as well as dong some construction work and teaching at Mtemaumo School, we also got to see a completed library at Mpemba, where exam results have rocketed since it's completion, and an impressive new school build close to Fishermen's Rest (I'm sorry Wiktor, I've forgotten the name of the school!). In the afternoons we danced, sang and played football at Tilitonse with the local children. It's a spectacular operation, with success down to Wiktor's ability to attract a considerable amount of corporate sponsorship, whilst at the same time engaging the communties in the development.  Nothing happens unless the communties themselves are fully commited and supportive of the scheme. There are no wasted efforts here.

Helping to build library and classrooms at Mtemaumo School

Helping deliver nutritious porridge at Mtemaumo School

Super competative Duck-Duck-Goose, Tilitonse Community Centre

Teacher Steve Garraway entertains the children at Mtemaumo School

A fun creative class, Mtemaumo School
Completed library Mpemba school.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Mulanje Mountain

It's a year since my first visit to Mulanje working as a leader for Outlook Expeditions, and the place laid a spell on me that has proven impossible to break.  I was blown away by the sweeping granite walls, the high altitude meadows, and the strange affinity to Scotland's moorland, with heather, peat and moss, re-imagined in Malawi, a land of mindboggling biodiversity. Last year I met our guide Wonderford Mmambo, and learned about the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team, of which he is a member.  I'm a member of a mountain resuce team too, and I was shocked by the stark contrasts between our two organisations- basically doing the same job. Except that Wonderford's team also do a lot to help out in their community, where there is little in the way of a safety net for people when life goes wrong.

Fast forward to January 2015 and the Mulanje Mountain Rescue Team was at the forefront of efforts in the area to rescue people trapped by catastrophic floods.  Many were killed, either drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others passed away in the aftermath from illnesses caused or made worse by the unsanitary conditions. Homes and businesses were destroyed. I'd already wanted to do something to help the rescue team, but the bad news from Mulanje encouraged me, and I undertook a fundraising challenge in May to raise some cash to take out to the team during this year's visit.

I was delighted to see Wonderford again this year, and he accepted on behalf of his team $1160 raised donated by you- my friends, family, colleagues and clients, to support the work of his team.

Wonderford is a superb guide, who knows the mountain like the back of his hand, and is both kind and incredibly professional. The Arran High Team were delighted to have him showing us the way in 2015 and we enjoyed a superb three day trek on the mountain.  He arranged for a team of strong porters to carry our tents and spare equipment for us- a worthwhile investment for enjoying the trek that also helps support the local community. Portering is one of the best paid jobs in the area.

Our route took us up to the Lichenya Basin, via a steep climb through high altitude pinapples, jungle, and moorland, to Lichenya Hut, one of the most beautiful and atmospheric of the huts on Mulanje.

In the forest strangler vines wrap themselves around ancient trees.

The porters carrying our equipment at Lichenya Hut

From Lichenya, the following day we enjoyed an undulating walk out of the basin, and along the narrow neck that links the main mountain to Chambe- an impressive outlying peak with impenetrable granite walls. We were excited to learn that it was the day of the Porter's race, a huge 26km mountain running event that attracts international competitors, but which is always won by one of the strong men from Likhubula, the village at the foot of the mountain.

The leaders in the Porter's Race

Stunning views from the path to Chambe

The entire team, reading the Arran Banner on Mulanje!
At Chambe, we were given permission to stay at France's hut, the setting for the tragic events told in Laurens Van Der Post's account of his 1949 explorations on Mulanje Venture to the Interior.

The following day, we descended to Likhubula, to enjoy a delicious pizza at the Mulanje Pepper Pizzeria. A rare treat in Malawi. After the trek, Wonderford arranged for me to meet some of his colleagues in the rescue team, and I was honoured to hear first hand from David Majeweta, John Ben and Kingsley Mmambo about the difficult times during the floods. I also learned a lot more about how the team functions.  With 24 members in total, drawn from  members of the Guides and Porters Association, six at a time from each of the four main settlements around the foot of the mountain. In this way the team ensure that they are able to provide a rapid response, as the mountain is very large and quite an obstacle to be negotiated. The men work as volunteers, and not only that, but the members of the Guides and Porters Association donate part of their earnings on the mountain to help keep the team going. The team has recently received some branded warm jackets from a benefactor, but on the whole they are fairly limited in their equipment.  They may not have much gear, but there is no lack of strength or dedication. As a mountaineer, who has fallen in love with Mulanje and been welcomed by the people I've met there, their story is a powerful one to me. They deeply impressed me with their commitment to their community and respect for the mountain on which they work.

Wonderford Mmambo, David Majeweta, Kingsley Mmambo and John Ben.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Dzalanyama Primary School

I've got my usual post expedition lurgy, which is incredibly frustrating, but is allowing me some time to catch up on writing and go through my photographs from my recent return visit to Malawi. I'll try and get them up here over the next few days.  Here is my first installment. If you have any questions about Malawi as a travel destination, please do get in touch. As last year, it was a wonderful journey, across a country that I love, filled with kind and generous people that are fast becoming friends.
We flew in to Lilongwe at the beginning of the month, to a warm welcome from Tom and Janey at Mabuya Camp. "We" being a small team of students from Arran High School, their teachers, and myself, their expedition leader, working on behalf of Outlook Expeditions. Lilongwe served as a platform for a short visit to the Ministry of Hope Crisis Nursery, where orphaned children from precarious backgrounds are taken in, and cared for until they are weaned and able to be returned to their families, or placed with foster families. Here the students learned about the risks that tiny babies face, including the hazards of childbirth, HIV and poverty- each putting their precarious lives in danger from the word go. We also experienced first hand the love and dedication of the care-givers at the nursery, who strive to give the babies a strong start in life. MoH also run a second crisis nursery at Mzuzu in the north of the Malawi, and a operate a mobile clinic service too.

From Lilongwe we travelled to Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where a village primary school is in urgent need of support. Our task was to rennovate an old staffroom to turn it in to a library for staff and students. Time was short, so the students worked incredibly hard, painting and building bookshelves, under the watchful eye of the headmaster and his students. The school lacks many basic amenities, and is in a sorry state of repair. We would have liked to have done much more. The teachers were on strike, having not been paid since the start of the financial year. The children still came to school however, giving the place a topsy turvy air, with riotous kids running around the quad all day while the teachers sat in the headmaster's office. Even under these strange circumstances, we received a warm welcome from staff and students. The headmaster outlined to us the urgent needs of the school, from sports equipment to exercise books, and solar panels to classroom furniture. Last year I helped build a boys dormitory, but this still isn't being used as they don't have the money to build the toilets.

Just as I was feeling quite downhearted about the situation, I met Benson, a former learner at the school,  back in the village for the holidays, currently studying Pharmacology at university in the city. Possibilities are here, if only young people get the help they need.

There isn't much scope for scratching a living in the Forest Reserve. One way the local make ends meet is by cutting firewood and then cycling the 65km to the city to sell it.  Deforestration is a pressing environmental concern in Malawi.

Everywhere we went, we were escorted by curious children who held our hands and laughed at our strange manners. 

The crazy, lovely children of Dzalanyama Primary School. They are just like kids anywhere really, except the they have a lot less of everything.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Ardgour Gold

Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award Expeditions are some of my favourite bits of work, big on wilderness and wildlife, motivated kids and challenge. Sometimes, I get to do expeditions in new areas, and the Gold in Ardgour at the weekend was one of these.  I'm fairly familiar with the shores of Loch Shiel, but this time we accessed it via the Corran Ferry and Glen Cona, all pretty much new to me.

We set off on Saturday on the tail end of a filthy storm that dumped epic amounts of rain and saw the burns in full spate. The map shows a number of fords in Glen Cona so we were prepared to have to wait for water levels to drop, but in reality most of these are now bridged, and we were able to find a camp near the pass to Callop.

Storm light in Glen Cona

The following day, the weather softened, as we descended the pass towards Callop and Glenfinnan. By the afternoon the sun was shining, and fluffy white clouds adorned the blue sky. We took to the forest road on the shores of Loch Shiel and found a campsite a few kms to the north of Polloch.

The peaks of Glenfinnan.

We woke up the next morning to a breathless Loch Shiel.  Whilst the midges were a menace, we were more than rewarded with dazzling reflections of the hills and sky.

From Polloch, it was over the hill to Scotstown, and through the beautiful woods at Ariundle, to a camp in some remnants of ancient woodland below the Strontian lead mines.

On the final day, we passed through the bog of Glen Gour and out to Ardgour. The sun continued to shine.  I was pretty delighted to emerge on to the road with my feet still dry after 4 days and 80km of boggy hill and landrover track.

Adder in Glen Gour

Glen Coe visible as we emerge from Glen Gour.

Safely back at the Corran ferry.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Arran Mulanje Trigpoint Challenge

This isn't going to be a short blog post- but I promise that it will contain more than lots of pictures of trigpoints and complaints about my feet. First of all the important bit- I did this to raise cash for two special causes- my local MRT, Arran Mountain Rescue,  who are funded largely by charititable donations from the public, and the team on Mulanje, Malawi, who have very little in the way of gear or funding at all. As I write, there is still time to donate- please click here and donate if you enjoy my story:

The journey begins!
The challenge I set myself was to link all 17 of Arran's pillar trigs, in a single unsupported push, taking in the destroyed blocks of Sannox and bolts of Corrie and Caisteal Abhail just for fun- 23 points in total. I calculated that it would be around 120km- and it was exactly that- 120km of bog, mountain, forest and heathery hill. Mostly this was pathless country, but I took in a brutal section of tarmac in the south end to catch up on some lost kms. 

Day 1:
I set out from Catacol later than planned but buzzing.  The pack felt heavyish but ok and the slopes of Cnoc Leacainn Duibhe were steep but gave way before me. It wasn't long before I was triumphantly leaning my pack against pillar no 1 and updating Twitter. Soon I was striding purposefully through Lochranza and waving cheerily at everyone I passed.  Bring on the challenge!

Things got tougher above Laggan.  It was windy on the ridge- really windy.  Near the Laggan trig I
No 1: Cnoc Leacainn Duibhe
stopped for a snack- put my pack down, and the wind snatched my map from the side pocket. I chased it briefly, and then watched it cartwheel over the edge of the seaward cliffs. Disaster! 
Who does a trig point challenge without a map?  Come to think of it, who does one without a spare? 
Me apparently.

I headed onward, grateful to Viewranger mapping on my phone (musing that I might be about to become a statistic- a foolish hillwalker caught navigating with just their smartphone). I was totally phased by this, and spent ages searching the cliff edge at Crogan for the North and South blocks- forgetting that they were listed as destroyed. Giving up eventually, the North Sannox Pillar came in to view and I headed down in to the woods past another destroyed trig- the Middle Transit. I sent a text to Wally, feeling deflated by my lost map and failure to find the Crogan blocks.

North Sannox... still smiling.
Pushing on, I said hello quickly to the destroyed block by the navigation beacon in Sannox, and strode down the road to Corrie.  Wally met me by the Corrie bolt with a new map. I promised not to use it so that the expedition would remain officially "unsupported". He waved me on towards Maol Donn and Goatfell- where gloomy clouds were gathering.

Maol Donn was a bit of a slog across the bog- at the time I thought it was hard fought and won, but with hindsight I had it easy. I made good progress up Goatfell, but the weather deteriorated with altitude, and I began to realise that getting off and finding a safe campsite would be difficult.  In planning, I'd known this would be the main hazard of the expedition, and I'd assumed that at the time I'd make a sound judgement based on the conditions (mine and the weather) about my onward journey.  Instead I ignored the signs and pushed on regardless.
It's an endurance test right?  So I will endure.

Goatfell summit
Finding the safe path off Stacach was not easy.  I've done it dozens of times, but in failing light with sideways hail and poor visibility, coupled with my scrambled head, I picked the wrong gully.  Soon I was descending choss above a mossy slab.   
This isn't right...  Not right at all.
Suddenly I realised how close I was to actually becoming a statistic. A messy one that my own MRT would have to deal with.
Not good. Sorry everyone.
I climbed back up to the ridge, where the wind was too strong to stand, and crawled on all fours until I found a better looking gully that turned out to be the right one.

I avoided North Goatfell to stay out of the wind, and cut back underneath and then up again to the
One word: grim!
ridge to pick up the descent to the Saddle.  Here the path is also not always obvious, with plenty of scrambling.  It's borderline gnarly for a walk in good weather and with a light pack.... That night I was catching the full force of the wind and rain. At one point I got my rucksack wedged in a chimney.  I had to unbuckle it and escape before trying to retrieve it without pulling myself off at the same time.

The Saddle didn't arrive soon enough.  I'd always planned to camp here, but had considered whether it would be more sensible to continue in to Glen Rosa to find shelter. However, when I arrived, compared to the ridge, it seemed pretty calm, and I was exhausted so I pitched my tent and got dinner on.

Day 2:
Through the night, every half hour or so, a big gust of wind would rattle the tent and wake me up.  After a while I tuned in to the telltale sounds of it roaring up Glen Rosa to meet me, and I'd be awake before it hit. My scrappy sleep continued until shortly before 5am, when all hell broke loose. Me and all my gear were soaked through and with my back hunched against the wall of the tent, I contemplated my options. I only had one.

Not long after I was high on Cir Mhor recovering in the shelter of steep craggy slopes and counting my blessings.  The early start had given me extra time for what was to be a long day. Lack of sleep? Piffle. Endure.

Abhail- A wee bolt for a big lovely mountain.
Caisteal Abhail was quite a big detour for what is only a small bolt- but it was the Abhail bolt that made me want to include bolts at all- it's a fabulous summit. That morning there wasn't much to see, but I was surprisingly content to be there. I descended via the Leac an Tobair until I hit the 350m contour line and traversed north, past the Loch Na Davie outflow and all the way around the other side of Glen Iorsa, eventually descending towards Loch Tanna. This was a first for me, in ten years of living on this lovely island I'd never been to this loch- which is beautiful by all accounts, although I did not see it at its best. The mists swirled in and out, giving me glimpses of the slopes of Beinn Bharrain above. Bharrain is the only place on Arran where you will find true scree- and it makes up for the lack elsewhere.  More akin to the Paps of Jura than the other Arran hills, its a tottering pile of stones. I ascended an eroded gully to Bealach an Fharaidh.  Yes- the map came out. 
More grimness.
The expedition was no longer officially unsupported. The trig is on the main summit- Mullach Buidhe, in the middle of the ridge. Up there the wind howled and the rain ripped through my (not currently) waterproofs and soaked me to my already soaked skin. Wearing all my clothes, I was shivering and my thoughts were sluggish. I realised I was once more close to becoming a statistic and descended as fast as I could.

Below, a new day was emerging from the wet one that had gone before.  The clouds rolled back to reveal a clean and golden world of Molinia white grass and blue lochains. I stumbled headlong through the tussocks in to Glen Iorsa. After wading the river, I spread my dripping gear out on a gravel bank and let the sun do it's work.

The clouds roll back.
The last part of the day was a hazy stomp through bog and grass.  I marvelled at the strength in my legs (am I really this strong?) as I climbed out of the glen to the plateau beneath Beinn Nuis.  The Monyquil trig lurks at the edge of woodland, and I cooked my dinner there in the shelter of the trees. I then battered out a tedius arc through peat hags to maintain the high ground on to An Tunna, before descending quickly to a comfortable camp by the Machrie water.

Day 3
I allowed myself a little lie in but was still moving by 7.30 am.  The sun was shining on the dark slopes of Ard Bheinn and I was keen to get going. An old trackway leads to the edge of the forest in Glen Craigag.  It wasn't far from here to the
Working up a sweat on Ard Bheinn
summit trig, but here I encountered the deepest heather I've ever known, towering to head height on the steep slopes above the river. This slowed me down, like wading through treacle- the kind that
grabs at you and knocks you over, but it was early in the day, my legs felt ok, so I plugged in my ipod and treated it like a workout. Soon I was singing as I worked, confident that nobody except the wildlife could hear me. After a while I arrived at the trig, and before me lay the sea.  I'd dreamt that this would be a fun day, with beach walks and flat paths. I couldn't wait get down.

At the road I met my mum, who walked and talked with me a while.  Eventually she left my side and I joined the Kings Cave path that took me close to Tor Righ Mor.  It was weird seeing holiday makers, who looked and smelled clean and happy.

I realised as I continued to the coast that I had a problem. Water.  Or lack of it. The burns on the Tor were dry, and here at the coast the streams were dank and full of farmy stuff. In Blackwaterfoot I was forced to stop to buy 1.5 litres bottled water. I hoped I'd find some more later. I took the opportunity to buy an ice cream too.  Cheating?  Possibly.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!
From Blackwaterfoot I took the coast path to just beyond Kilpatrick.  I joined the road and found the corner of the forest that leads up to Cnocan Don. I'd expected another heathery stumble- but there- a gorgeous path led up hill in exactly the direction I wanted to take.  Further up, I noted funny wooden bridges over boulders. Pour moi? In case I don't want to scramble?  Why, thank you!  I finally realised that this was not for my benefit, but rather two wheeled fun, although it hadn't been used in months and I couldn't decide if this was for motorised or person-powered bikes. From the trig, it was straight down the hill to the road again, a quick and nervous hop over an electric fence, and on to Corriecravie.

I attempted to walk the coastal path, but it was stony, boggy and peppered with scary looking cows. I was beaten- the tarmac above called me.  I apologised to my feet and hit the road after 1 km. From here I pounded tarmac at a solid 4km an hour. A proper pace at last.  My feet got hot, and my head was sore. I ran out of water, but after a few kms was able to fill up again at Kilmory Village Hall. Evening drew in and it began to rain.  I'd planned to camp at my final trig for the day- on Kilbride Hill, but
No camping!
found it to be a quagmire of slurry and animal poached mud. I pressed on.  The rain fell harder.  Wally was planning to meet me with vital information about my route through the forest the following day.  He was nowhere to be seen.  My blood sugar dropped... the rain persisted.  I howled at nobody, and then when I got him on the phone, I howled at Wally.

Wally was way back on the road- surprised by my progress, he was still searching for me in the van near Kilmory.  He eventually caught up with me close to the Eas Mor track up to Garbad. We pitched my tent in the rain and darkness on a pocket sized patch of grass by the track and I stole a hot drink in the van.

Day 4:
My feet were blistered, but I'd convinced myself I only had 20km to go (wrong!), so I was optimistic when I set off for the Garbad trig. Armed with essential info about the maze of forest and firebreaks I was entering (thank you Wally for seeking out my route),  I found it lurking in a
Spooky wood...
Tolkeinesque Mirkwood of lichens and hanging branches. It glowed white in the gloaming like a thing possessed. Onwards, left and right, zigzagging through the firebreaks, then pushing through the trees, until I popped out above Glenashdale, to sunshine and views of Holy Isle.  Almost home!

From Glenashdale I was on turf I knew for a while, and thought that I'd have no problems pushing on up to Tighvein, the highest point on Arran's South End. Wrong again! It's different with tired legs, blisters and a heavy pack.  At less than 2kmph the going was tedious beyond measure.  Heathery banks, dense willow thickets and reedy riverbeds barred my way. I received a couple of impatient texts from my mum- who was waiting for me much further down the road. Morale dipped. I howled
Tighvein.  The middle of nowhere.
again- roared even, but nobody heard me. I reached the summit, and descended to the Ross Road, knowing that there was worse to come.

Looking at the map- I could see that the 2km over the moor to Tighvein was nothing compared to the 6km to the Sheeans. I prepared myself, ate as much as I could and plugged the ipod in. I set my face against the rain showers that were rolling by and tried not to think about the end. I tried not to think about anything except one foot in front of the other.   
This is what I do.  Walk.

I must have picked up the pace because I arrived at the Sheeans an hour earlier than I'd expected. Food is wonderful and so is music. I'd only been there once before- nearly ten years ago- and then a path had existed that cut down to the forest road above Cnoc na Dail. I could see from the summit that much had changed since then- with felling, wind blow and new trees all over the place. Damn.

Not my happy face.
I made the best of it and set off in roughly the direction I wanted to go in.  I picked a forest ride, and met a seemingly blind mass of windblow and new trees. I turned right in to an open ride, which got wetter as I traversed the hill. The wetness grew, from waterlooged to sucking bog. Soon I was trapped, both legs squelching above the knee. I kicked, frightened, and initially nothing happened.  With a mighty heave I pulled myself free, and retreated in to the cover of the forest floor under low branches. Damn. I scabbled under the trees alongside the ride until I saw heather growing in the light.  A good dry plant, this might work. I emerged from the trees and continued, but before long I was back in the mire.  Only this time I was really stuck.  I pulled at the bog and it pulled back.  I sank further. Up to my thighs. I remembered that wild animals die in bogs like this.  More howling. Was I about to be another statistic? I felt the mud yanking at my boot. Oh no!  But then- oh yes, it can have my boot but it can't have me.

I recalled reading somewhere about how to escape quicksand. Like steering in to a skid- you break the suction by pushing against it's force.  I kicked, I squelched, and I rolled free, with both my boots still attached to my feet.

Cowering in the forest.  I texted Wally my grid reference so he would know where to look for me if I never made it out. I really had hit a low! I considered my options once more and again I only had one. I crawled back in the direction I had come to reach the first ride where my way had been blocked by timber and fresh spiky young sitka spruce.  Pushing my way through it was the only way. It wasn't long before my knuckles were bleeding, but I made progress.  I saw light to the right, and a glint of something man made.  More scrabbling through trees, and I broke out on to a quad track that led me straight to the forest road. One more to go-  It's in the bag!

Crossing tarmac for the second time that day, I was suddenly surrounded by loved ones.  Wally, my mum and her husband Alan plus happy waggy dogs were walking beside me. I ought to feel happy but all I feel is sore. 

Finally there- with Wally and Mum (Sue Weaver).
As I approached the final trig point at Clauchlands I tried to think of the people I did it for. I mainly did it for the men on the mountain in Malawi who don't have proper walking boots or waterproofs but who will come looking for you in a storm at 2500m if you need them. I also did it for my local mountain rescue team who have all the trappings of a first class emergency service, but who are really volunteers funded by donations. I'm a part of this team, and very proud of this fact- there are some tough, good people there who will get you out of a fix if you need them. I also did it, truth be told, to find out if I'm made of anything remotely similar to these mountain heroes. Having done it, I'm not sure if my mind is all that strong, but it turns out that my legs are.