Marhofn 106.06 - May 2004

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The Taming of The Slate

Alan Dawson

It all started so deceptively easily. I drove in along the rough track to Glenahanty, just like Woodall would. His downright cheek in such matters encouraged me to do likewise. This made the ascent of Cnoc Moy quick and easy, with a series of grassy runs through the tussocks enabling me to reach the top in 45 minutes. I enjoyed the views from this surprisingly pleasant hill and mentally prepared myself to dig deep for the traumas ahead. Yet the descent to the col was a routine variety of heather, grass and tussock. Halfway down I was aware of an odd sensation, and it took me a few seconds to identify it - I was enjoying this.

Then came the first crux - the col. Which also turned out to be not bad at all. Deep heather, holes, lumps, tussocks and a stream. Standard narrow col really. Just over the stream I noticed some in situ gear - a small wooden stile over an electric fence. So, someone had been this way before. However I declined to use it and started upwards, crossing another fence unaided a few minutes later. The terrain was certainly harder than on Cnoc Moy but not too intimidating, so I was able to maintain upward progress through a series of mini-hazards: an armpit-level grass ramp, a tough tussock traverse, and then the fabled heather walls. As I tackled the first heather wall I veered left where the angle seemed to ease and felt a short sharp pain in my knee. I looked down and saw a red smear. So, the route had drawn first blood.

For a while things looked up with some short stretches of easily negotiated grass, but these eventually gave out and led to a new hazard. I stood on a small lump and looked down into the black depths of an oozy peat pit. The only way across was to grasp the top of the fence for support and hope it wasn't electric. I grabbed for it. No shock! A second later I had leapt across the black depths.

After a few more good pull-ups on long heather and grass clumps I reached the subsidiary top of Creag nan Cuilean, from where I could survey the long traverse out to the well-guarded summit cone of The Slate itself. How I had dreamed of being here poised for a summit push, yet still I remembered the stories of others who hadn't made it. The route looked okay, I thought. I knew it was within my capabilities to solo it if only I had the will to keep going. I tightened my rucksack belt, took a deep breath, and began to weave my way east through the tussocks, expertly picking out short lines of level ground through the lumps and hollows. Time passed, distance was gained, and I became lost in the intense concentration required for the micronavigation. It wasn't exactly a rhythm, but it was a routine.

Suddenly there was a loud bang from the north, then another and another. Surely not rockfall? No, it had to be shots. I looked up and realised I had been in something of a reverie, paying such close attention to the terrain that I had forgotten where I was, so it took me a few seconds to understand what I was seeing. Waves. Breaking on the sandy beach of Machrihanish. I had been so focused on my feet that all thoughts had gone and I hadn't noticed the view opening up. Slowly my mind creaked back into gear. I remembered my name, where I lived, where I worked, and where I was right now. Oh yes, I was on a thing called The Slate.

The spell was broken, so immediately everything became much harder work. I had been effortlessly breezing across awkward, lumpy, boggy terrain by not noticing it. Or rather, by concentrating so hard that I had lost awareness of how hard it was. With my mind back in control I plodded on toward the treeline, aware now of others sounds - pipits, skylarks, grouse, jackdaws. I glanced down to the right through the trees, trying to see where Woodall's route went, but it was inconceivable to think someone had come up that way.

As I neared the treeline I realised I had made a major error: I didn't know where I was going. I had got too close to the trees without stopping to pick out a viable line. Damn. I'd covered the awkward ground too quickly by not noticing where I was. I couldn't face going back for a recce and then returning to my current highpoint, so I decided to have a guess at the route. When I reached the forest fence I veered left as the terrain became much lumpier and more awkward, as it so often does around the treeline. This must be the woodschrund.

I climbed the fence (5b) and traversed left around the edge of the trees for about 100 metres, aiming for a break I thought I'd seen. Light rain began, and I looked back to see Cnoc Moy disappearing into mist. As I entered the forest and saw the gap in the trees close behind me, I was aware of the route feeling more serious. The rain got harder, the mist a little thicker. I stopped for a drink and got some protection in place - overtrousers covering shorts and skin. I looked round a full 360 degrees and couldn't see quite how I had got where I was. This was ridiculous. I had only been inside the forest a few minutes and already I had that familiar and uncomfortable sensation of being trapped. Ahead there was a ride of maybe 30 metres of grass and heather and then just a blank wall of trees. As I reached them I turned right, then left, and was soon in trouble. I could sense this wasn't going to go. Time for retreat. But which way? There were few clues about how to get out, and there seemed little point in wasting time trying to work out exactly how I had reached this impasse.

I rested a minute to regain composure, then set off on a compass bearing directly westward, pulling back the nearest branch and ducking under it. A ditch immediately opened up beneath my feet, making progress awkward. I managed to swing a leg across to the far side, regained my balance, and continued for several metres straddling the ditch and hoping it wouldn't get any wider. Eventually I managed to get my legs back together but then the branches edged closer to each other, making movement harder and choking potential exit routes. My back was getting sore from ducking and bending, my legs weary of bridging and straddling. Knowing I needed to change my technique, I pulled my hood up, turned round and backed my way out. After a few minutes in reverse gear my backside popped clear of the last spruce and I was free.

With some relief I retraced my steps along the forest edge back to the fence junction, continued a few metres further south, and before long I caught sight of an easy ride opening up to the left. At last, I had found the key to the summit. It was trivial really, requiring no crawling or thrashing, merely a stroll up through a gap that was wide enough for two. I laughed at how simple it was. The forest had been fun in a way, but it was poor route finding. I should have spotted this line from way back on the tussock terrace. Soon the trees ended and the summit clearing was in sight. It wasn't quite a simple stroll, as almost immediately there was a peat wall to negotiate, which might have been awkward in very wet conditions but was easily bypassed in the drizzle. I looked back to check the exit route - determined not to make another mistake - and felt happy as I mounted the final few heathery lumps to the summit. In a way I was glad it had been a struggle, as it made reaching the top more satisfying. The mist lifted a little to give snatched views of open country, then closed up again within seconds. There was little reason to linger, so I turned and was quickly back at the peat wall, through the ride and back out below the forest, retracing the traverse of tussock terrace. The Slate hadn't been easy, but it had been tamed.

Or so I thought, but really I ought to have known better. It hadn't gained its evil reputation for nothing, and sure enough I wasn't going to get down unscathed. I relaxed too soon, and either impatience or over-confidence made me cut the corner on the descent rather than return over Creag nan Cuilean. Bad move. Another little trap had been set and I had fallen right into it. The angle steepened, trees started to appear from nowhere all around me, the lumps underfoot got bigger, and suddenly both hands were busy as I needed all my skill and experience to slow the descent. I clung onto clumps of grass to check my momentum and ease the strain on my knees, then suddenly I felt my teeth jam together as I slammed to a halt. Shit. My foot was stuck in a hole, a deep one, hidden in the long grass. I realised I was in a heavily crevassed area that could mean only one thing - the ground had been prepared for more planting, and I was right in the middle of a series of awkward trenches and runnels. Another blunder.

Still, now I understood the type of terrain I knew the best bet was to get out of there fast, so I forgot about descending and traversed further west, over lumps and ditches toward the final trench, until I was much nearer the line of the ascent route. It was good to get back on more friendly terrain. I found the heather walls easier going down than up, somehow I missed the black peat pit altogether, and soon I was back to the armpit-level grass just above the col.

I looked across at Cnoc Moy, which had begun to look surprisingly impressive from below, and knew I wouldn't be climbing it again even though its terrain was placid. So I turned left and began the long wallow back along the forest edge. The grass was deep in places, with foot placements uncertain, but soon I reached an old ruin and gained a bit of height just beyond it, hoping to avoid the deepest vegetation. It had looked better but the going soon deteriorated, with patches of brutal hard-core vegetation; classic bottomless grass, with every step unseen and uncertain, and no way of knowing whether each foot placement would land on a wet slithery lump or in a hidden trench. Jeez, this was bad. The breeze had gone, sweat started dripping, flies and midges came out to play and I began swearing. It wasn't meant to be like this. I had done all the hard work, this wasn't fair. Bastard bloody ground, bloody flies, this was crazy, it shouldn't be allowed, why were there no breaths of wind, no sheep to cull the grass, no birds to cull the flies. If the start had been like this I know I would never have made it. August was clearly the wrong time of year to be on this ruthless terrain. The only thing to do was try to keep moving, slowly one step at a time, gain a little height, and surely there must be some friendly heather and tussock soon.

I couldn't have been stuck in that stuff for long but it seemed forever. Eventually I reached a low stone wall, climbed over it, and on the other side I could see the ground dropping away and a beautiful view opening up - scattered old farm buildings, a flourish of gorse bushes, and a little blue van. You beauty. It was downhill all the way to safety.

The Slate from Cnoc Moy (photo: Colin Crawford)

The Slate from Cnoc Moy (photo: Colin Crawford)

The Slate had thrown challenge after challenge at me. Some I had biffed aside with ease, others I had fluffed at first but passed in the end. It had been hard, even desperate at times, but I had kept my nerve and done okay. As I drove slowly back down the rutted track I felt the warm glow of accomplishment in the face of adversity, and judged that I was ready to move up a grade. Back at the road I turned the van northwards and set off toward Sgreadan Hill.

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