March 12th, 2009

Last week I was in Glencoe with some friends, enjoying myself away from the office and the horrors of Visual C++ and Matlab. The idea was to try and get some winter climbing in, but knowing the caprices of Scottish weather, I was always a bit dubious as to how much we’d actually get done. We’d arranged to stay in an independent hostel which was friendly, adequately comfortable and not too expensive.
I took the train up to Edinburgh last Saturday and stayed with Miles and Ciorstaidh, and then Miles and I drove on up to Glencoe the following day. But first we had to get a car…

I’m becoming a bit good at car hire, even if I do say so myself. I think I’ve probably hired about 20 vehicles of various sorts since returning to the UK, and every time I learn a little more about how to beat the system and get a good price. I’d discovered a few months ago that Alamo were doing a “free upgrades” promotion on their website, which makes for some unbeatable deals, especially on a 7 day hire. But they’re sneaky. You only get the promotional price if you book by clicking on the banner ad advertising the deal, and not by going through the main booking page. This is doubly entertaining when you realise that Alamo, National and Europcar are now all the same firm, and yet by going via different websites you can get radically different prices for what is exactly the same car from exactly the same location. Anyway, I’d booked a Zafira, because on Alamo’s special deal it was only a few quid more than a much smaller vehicle, and being a 7 seater we could get everyone in it if we needed to (Andy was also bringing his car, but it’s nice to be able to travel in one, especially to the pub!). The final price was £167 for 7 days, plus another £45 to add a second driver (payable on collection).
The other catch was hiring it on a Sunday. Most car hire offices are closed on Sundays, but Alamo’s website assured me that their branch at Waverley railway station in central Edinburgh would be open. On Sunday morning, Miles said “Just ring the car hire place and a) check they’re open and b) find out exactly where they are, as Waverley is a big place”. So I did. And got an answerphone message saying that they were shut. Oh dear. I call Alamo’s central bookings line. They say, yes, the office is closed on Sunday. I say “but when I booked the website said it would be open”. They said “well, you should have checked. We’ll see if we can get you a car at the airport branch (which is open) but we can’t promise you anything.” I asked to speak to the supervisor. Whilst I was explaining to the supervisor, my phone made a call-waiting beep. After she rang off, promising to see if she could find me a Zafira at the airport (there was a shortage, and they wanted to offer me a smaller car), I checked my voicemail. It was Scott, the manager of the Europcar branch at Waverley station, saying that he’d been rung by the Airport branch, and was a bit confused. He left his mobile number. I called him back. He assured me that he did have my booking, and would have a car for me at 2pm, the time I’d booked.
Miles and I got down to the office at about 2:15. It was empty and locked, and a note stuck up in the window gave Scott’s mobile number to ring. I rang it. He apologised and said he’d send someone over to collect us – several of his staff were off sick and so he was trying to run two Edinburgh offices with just three staff including himself. A guy duly turned up in a small Peugeot and took us half-a-mile round the corner to the main Europcar depot. There we met Scott and signed the forms. He said that unfortunately he had a Zafira that had been returned, but with a flat tyre. Would we take the little Peugeot to the airport and exchange it for a Zafira? We signed. He waived the second driver fee by way of compensation. We drove to the airport (30 mins), faffed about for 20 minutes whilst they worked out what black magic Scott had worked on Europcar’s central database, and finally gave us the keys to a very nice top-model Zafira. We drove it all the way back into Edinburgh to get our stuff and go to the supermarket. By 5:30pm, the time we finally left, Andy and Alan were virtually at Glencoe having started from London! Anyway, the car was very nice, and returning it turned out to be no hassle. This again confirms my previous experience that the staff on the ground at car hire firms are usually immensely helpful, but that their head offices aren’t always so great. Anyway… on with the week.

Monday was wet with temperatures just above freezing, and we went out and climbed Bidean nam Bian. By the time we paused to put extra layers on at the snow line (700m), I was feeling cold, wet and moderately knackered, but once over into the snowy slopes of the corrie wall we all got a second wind and plodded up onto the summit. My new crampons performed nicely, and I was grateful for the loan of Miles’ old-school ice axe (it has a long wooden handle and belonged to his Dad). However, my ex Dutch Army waterproof overtrousers proved to be something of a handicap – they’re too big, and need reproofing: they absorb water and get heavy and I spent a lot of the day trying to stop them from falling down. Anyway, we got home safely and felt we’d earned our tea after walking all day in the rain.

Tuesday’s weather was, as forecast, pretty horrid, with snow falling right down to sea level. We copped out and went to Fort William, where I bought a new pair of waterproof trousers in Nevisport (they’re made by Trespass, cost £25 and have nice features like big side zips and have performed well so far). Then we went to see the Ben Nevis distillery. The tour starts with a totally dreadful ten minute video, fronted by a cheap copy of Brian Blessed dressed in a Highland plaid and supposedly the giant that landscaped Scotland and invented whisky. It was dire. Fortunately the rest of the tour was interesting and well-explained, and there was a wee dram for everyone (except Miles, who was driving!) afterwards.

Wednesday brought us a much nicer day – cloudy initially but bright and clear. The worry was avalanche risk (forecast at category 4 out of a possible 5) with all the soft snow which had barely consolidated as temperatures had only been just below freezing. We elected not to climb a route, but instead do some advanced-level hillwalking (by which I mean climbing steep snowy slopes with an ice axe and crampons, but without needing to rope up) on Aonach Dubh a’ Ghlinne and Sgorr na h-Ulaidh. I became concerned during the walk-in that my left knee was a bit unhappy, but it turned out to be fine. Once onto the mountain there was plenty of soft snow (knee-depth on the ridge we climbed) but it was all pretty stable. On the top of the ridge the snow was deeper, and we quickly decided that walking 3km to the summit in at times waist-deep snow was a daft idea, and dropped off a col down to the valley bottom. Lots of fun was had in descending the slope in the deep snow, and I was amused to discover that I can still walk in deep snow that other people sink into – there’s definitely an art to it!

Overnight we had yet more snow, and so on Thursday the party divided into two. Four of us (including myself) went skiing on Aonach Mor (Nevis Range), which was having the best skiing conditions for a decade, whilst Miles and Michael elected to have a go at Dorsal Arete on Stob Coire nan Lochan. They had a bit of an epic – there was so much deep snow that four parties ahead of them had failed to even make it to the base of the route, and although they themselves began the route they bailed out soon afterwards as it was just too hard.

Friday turned out to be the best climbing day, and so Andy and Alan went off with the intention of doing some Grade IV route, and Miles, Steve and I went to revisit Dorsal Arete (grade II). The trek up the icy approach paths was much better than it had been the day before (Miles and I had shoe chains, whereas poor Steve was rather struggling without them) and although there was plenty of snow on the route it was a lot more straightforward to get onto it. Unfortunately, half the climbing population of the area was there too, and with the route being quite narrow, it got rather busy. We finally made the ascent but had to miss out the crux (the only bit that makes it a grade II, the rest was easy-peasy under those conditions) because the winds became quite strong and we were all getting cold and tired. I led the final section (only a few metres) just because it was easier than rearranging all the ropes again!

Saturday was wet, and although Alan and Miles and I did have a trudge out to look at Curved Ridge on Buchaille Etive Mor, we turned back once there was evidence of fresh avalanches and very rapid snow melt.

All that said, the party were good craic and I learned a lot about my own ability. I’m naturally very conservative when trying new things, and so it was useful to match my previous experience to Scottish conditions. Avalanche risk is still something I need to learn more about (it’s almost but not quite negligible at Rothera) but I’m pleased to find that I’m still very comfortable on walking and climbing on steep snow slopes and can still climb over rocks whilst wearing crampons!

Of course, there was also plenty of beer, bacon sandwiches and pie consumed. And haggis. Mmm, haggis. A good time was had by all.

One footnote – the shoe chains were definitely worth having for the ice-and-snow covered rocky paths, and I found myself using my Glacier Glove neoprene gloves for all the walking and climbing. They’re not very warm, but they keep the wind and rain out, and they work like a wetsuit – a layer of warmish water sits next to your hands and helps to keep them warm. As I have fairly warm hands I found that the extra dexterity by far outweighed the disadvantage of having slightly colder hands, as I never needed to remove my gloves whilst walking or climbing.

One Response to “Glencoe”

  1. Christopher Falco Says:

    I lived in glasgow for almost a year, and I thank you for reminding me of all the great friends I made there, and all the great times I had. Keep up the good work!

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