Winter packrafting in Scotland

I should have been off to France in early November to packboat down the Allier River, but the current job drags on. So despite the very short days, it struck me I ought to finish off my summer’s packrafting plan. On that occasion I ran out of time at Fort William while realising my idea of traipsing merrily across the bogs of Rannoch Moor from loch to river was – as usual – over-ambitious. Being my first packing trip, I also learned a bit about what gear works for this sort of travel.
End of November I’ll walk southeast for two days down from Fort William to west Rannoch along the West Highland Way, like any normal person. Then I’ll put-in near the road bridge at Loch Ba and paddle northeast for two slow days onto Loch Laidon for Rannoch station to train back home. Another perfect mini adventure!

Nov 25:
Looks like the forecast is freezing and snowy, so I’m a little concerned that a weekend of sub-zero temperatures may be enough to thinly freeze the lochs by Monday when I reach Loch Ba, making it too thin to walk on but too hard to paddle across. (a couple of weeks later we indeed experienced a paddling-through-ice scenario on a local river. Wind is forecast at 18mph headwind, but not till Tuesday which on top of -2 ought to chill things down. But that’s the final day’s paddle to the station so it can be endured or walked.

On the way I’ll be trying out some new gear:

  • Full length Seal Skin socks for bog-wading immunity.
  • Self-draining trail shoes (normal hiking shoes with a hole melted through the sides). My Keen Arroyo drainers were not up to loaded walking.
  • Watershed UDB drybag/backpack and W’shed Chattooga day bag.
  • A waterproof Panasonic FT2 camera that can just hang off the neck come rain or splash. No more scrabbling with a Peli box while watching out for camera-killing drips and the rocks ahead.
December 5 ~ All Pack and no Paddle

I ended up only packwalking for three days, reversing the West Highland Way (WHW) from Fort William to Bridge of Orchy. It was nice enough, especially the last day after a bit of snow to improve grip. The only other person I met was this guy who’d cycled the WHW from Glasgow (95 miles) in 2 and a bit days. Pretty good going as I soon found out it’s not all rideable or even easily walkable in icy conditions.
On the first day I misjudged what I needed to wear a couple of degrees below freezing and ended up overheated and worn out after a long climb out of Fort William. After 13 miles I descended to Kinlochleven, a former ally-smelting company town for which the Blackwater reservoir had been built a century ago. From above it looked like some sinister gulag hidden in  a valley. With snow on the hills I thought the hostel here would have been packed out with cramponards, but there were only 4 others in and close up Kinloch doesn’t look so bad. The smelting works have now been converted into an ice climbing centre, while I imagine plenty of excess hydro power still pours down the pipes to get fed off to Fort William.

Day 2 was a slog up along the pipeline towards the reservoir and then breaking off on the WHW path towards the walk’s 560-metre high point at the Giant’s Staircase before dropping to Glencoe. From the top the Blackwater reservoir looked grim but was clearly unfrozen which boded well for tomorrow when I hoped to paddle the nearby lochs to Rannoch station. For the second time that day I went flying on ice, ripping off my metal watch strap, tearing my trousers and bashing my knee. The heavy pack amplified the impacts. Then later, walking on the flat towards the isolated Kingshouse Hotel at the head of Glencoe, I slipped again on and landed hard with the heel of my hand on a sharp rock which hurt a lot. With three similar falls on the previous day, after 9 miles I staggered into the hotel feeling pretty beaten up, but what a lovely cosy old place to spend the night! There was a fantastic view out of my room across to the pyramid peak of Buachaille Etive Mòr, while deer gathered below my window in the dusk.
It snowed overnight and leaving Kingshouse Hotel, after a few miles I was expecting to get a view east over to Loch Ba from a high point cairn on the WHW, to establish whether it was worth schleping cross country to get to the water. The previous night had been forecast at -10°C and at the viewpoint all to the east was just a snowy tundra, with a small, snow-covered frozen loch south of Loch Ba for sure. Was Loch Ba frozen too? I couldn’t see from there nor from any other point further on the WHW, despite scooting without a pack up a hill for a better recce. Only back home when I zoomed in on the photos could I see a thin blue line of the bigger Loch Laidon which was clearly unfrozen. So I probably could have managed it after all.
whw-stagsIt has to be said it was a lovely sunny day on the trail with only me, the stags, and some scurrying tracks, so with days short, I was happy to stick with what I knew and plod on to Bridge of Orchy station, rather than paddle to Rannoch station (the next one up) as planned.
So, a 40-mile walk in the snow with a heavy load. Nothing new there. What I should have done is taken the path from Kingshouse east to Rannoch, passing north of the lochs, but that would have missed out Loch Ba and the easy and shallow chute between the two lochs (though that may well have been frozen).
If nothing else it proved that you can set off for a walk with a camping load including a packraft as an option. If the walking is more pleasant or the packrafting not worthwhile, the modest extra weight is no drama. It would have been nice to go for a paddle but it’ll all be there next time and on the way to the station at Bridge of Orchy I was sizing up the Orchy River which drains from the moor to enter Loch Awe which I’d never heard of but whose north end is right on the Oban rail branch line. Sounds like a couple of nasty waterfalls need the be walked round on the Orchy soon after the bridge, but in tame water that’s too low for any hardshell it could be another little adventure with packboat and paddle. With roads, rails and trails, the more you look at a map of Scotland, the more packable stuff is out there.
A week back home and the temperatures have jumped, even in Scotland, so the papers have to write about something else. Today, December 10th, the webcam at Kingshouse is the standard miserable Scottish highland vista.
We’re going back in a month to walk back from Orchy to the hotel and from there to Rannoch station. Bring on some more Siberian winds.
I was back in the area a month of so later in mid January 2011 – still snowy but less thick cover. This time I could clearly see the path off the WHW leading down to the road bridge being repaired, the rushing torrent of the river Ba leading to the loch and even the isles on the loch, not totally ice bound. Maybe my eyesight improved over Xmas.

Gear

  • Seal Skin socks – very good while they last. Warm but not sweaty considering they’re initially waterproof. The knee length ones ought to make great waders.
  • Self-draining Karrimor trail shoes. No real wading to test them, but certainly better to walk in with a heavy load than the thin-soled Arroyos, even if proper tight lacing (which could be adapted onto the Arroyos) had a lot to do with it. I may adapt a decent pair of decent trail shoes from Meindl or whatever with a better sole, if some turn up half price. It would be nice to get some plain, non Gore-tex trail shoes for packboating but I don’t think they exist these days.
  • whw-udbWatershed UDB drybag backpack was suprisingly good when you consider the 16kg load I carried just on shoulder straps with another smaller yellow Watershed over the front. Part of the tolerable comfort I feel was that the UBD’s relatively rough fabric grips across the back like weak velcro and so spreads the load. The packstaff paddle shaft saved a few tumbles and so means the 4-part Aquabound paddle is well suited when trail walking and paddling.
  • fxg-FT2The Panasonic FT2 never got to be splash tested either but was otherwise easy to use (once you know Pana interface) and took some great shots and video. It does lack the full 25mm width of my normal Lumix TZ6 and I wonder if on full zoom the relatively tiny lens is on then limit. A great back up camera for watery places. I’m still using one in 2016.

Some more randomly ordered pics:

 

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