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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: It’s the grim days that stick in your mind!

By Ben MacGregor

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Camp below Suilven (later abandoned).
Camp below Suilven (later abandoned).

“There is so much cold and wet!” A few years ago I was surprised by a comment about one of my “Ralph” books – admittedly from a man who had spent much time in the hot sun of desert regions.

While I enjoy being out in sunshine as much as anyone else, it’s the wild weather occasions that stick in the memory. I can understand the appeal of storm-chasing, there is an exhilaration about nature when she more than hints at the power of which she is capable.

The Pass of Drumochter is a narrow line of civilisation through a vast area of empty, wild country. I always enjoy the journey through the mountains, especially if I can find time to stop and climb to the tops, but two occasions particularly come to mind.

That gale of driving rain when the hillsides were seamed with white and brown, the rivers in spate and sheets of water were flying across the road. Or the time when, climbing slowly from Bruar, a sharp cut-off line marked where wet falling snow became dry blowing drift.

Above the line the spindrift was like dense fog, drifts building out across the road as quickly as the snowploughs removed them. It was a brief foray from an everyday journey into a winter mountain storm, glad I had winter tyres on and a sleeping bag in the back.

Suilven. A fine July night sleeping out on the summit has never been repeated, but another memorable occasion was one October night. After midnight in rising wind I abandoned a camp below the peak to walk back down the glen in intermittent moonlight to the more robust shelter of Suileag bothy.

As the rain came on I enjoyed, rarely for me, a luxurious sleep-in then began breakfast with a nice mug of tea, watching in comfort from the doorway as the gale swept spectacular west-coast rain up the glen.

Alastair Borthwick has many accounts of mountain expeditions in his famous book, Always a Little Further, but his best describe times of storm and the most evocative of all is an account of a 1930’s night at Arrochar Youth Hostel full of folk sheltering from a downpour of rain. It immediately conjures up similar experiences for me 30 years later at Ennerdale and Black Sail in the Lakes, or Idwal (with its three-tier bunks) in north Wales.

The fine weather occasions are mostly forgotten!

A view out to driving rain.
A view out to driving rain.

Then there was that January when I walked the West Highland Way in an almost non-stop downpour – I was refused accommodation at the Inversnaid Hotel (I hadn’t tried to book beforehand) and perforce had to pick my way another six miles up Loch Lomond in the dark and wet to find unexpected comfort in a deserted climbing hut.

There’s nothing like relaxing in the dry as a storm rages outside! The next day I reached Crianlarich, in the morning came an apocalyptic downpour with thunder and lightning and a hostel full of munro-baggers heading out early for the hills in spite of it all.

That was some day, 20 miles of storm and flood to the Kingshouse Inn with a warm welcome as the only guest – in sharp contrast to Inversnaid.

Caught by the storm on Ben Attow, descending 2000 feet of bright green mountainside streaming with water to the shelter of Camban bothy. Day after day of mist and rain on what is now the Cape Wrath trail… and the luxury of a dry, sheltered spot to pitch the tent below the clifftops a few miles south of the lighthouse.

Glendhu bothy.
Glendhu bothy.

Two occasions at the Glencoul bothies when I nearly lost my kayak to the wind and sea from where I’d left it by the bothy walls. The time I spent a whole day in the tent by Lochan Fada waiting for the rain to stop, and then made an epic crossing of the mountains to the north in mist and driving drizzle with an old map which marked a triple-peaked summit as a flat plateau.

And the other morning gave an ordinary cycle ride. I dropped a tool in for repair at Watten then carried on in wind and sun to Mybster, Westerdale and Halkirk before heading on down Loch Calder as black clouds grew in the north-west.

Just as the rain came on I reached the café at Westfield, timing it well to enjoy a lovely coffee and cake as the June rain pelted the windows. That downpour made the trip, especially as the sun came out again on the wet roads as I pedalled homewards.

You can’t do anything about weather, so why not just enjoy it? Even if the sun shines every day.

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