Friday, 16 May 2014

Jura Recce Rookie

Matt and I registered for the Jura Fell race a few months ago, and although we only made it onto the waiting list I felt I would benefit from a recce (the likelihood of "reserves" getting into the race is high if you're there on the day) . The course is notoriously tricky to navigate, and I reckoned I could kill two birds with one stone: consolidate my learning from Steven Fallon's recent nav course, and reduce my chances of going astray on race day.

Fortunately I knew the perfect companion for this venture: Helen Wise, who had spent a week "going feral" in Jura last year, recceing the course several times, purloining a "secret map" from a band of Jura gurus, and finally, much to Willie's bafflement, not actually racing. Such is Helen's affection for the island, that she needed very little persuasion. Even the rather miserable forecast in the run up to the weekend, the prospect of a 5.30am start, and the nobscab who trashed her car's bike rack didn't dampen her enthusiasm.

So apparently I made it into her bike-rackless car at about 5.30am and I achieved partial consciousness a couple of hours into the three hour journey to Tayvallich. Helen did well to tolerate early-morning-me, which I've been told is something akin to Regan from The Excorcist with a side-order of stupid.

Nicol, captain of the passenger ferry, greeted Helen as an old friend in the Tayvallich cafe. "You're back again? Ohhh Jesus!" and after scraping through the life-belt intelligence test, we crashed over the swells towards Craighouse, trying (and failing) not to spill Nicol's lovely dram of Jura.

Helen pitched the tent like a pro, and with little ado we were off into the hills. After a brief climb on track we resigned ourselves to a day of damp feet as we picked our way through marshy long grass beside the woods on the way to Dubh Chreag. I squee-ed a bit to myself with the excitement of using my new compass and altimeter. The section to Dubh Bheinn (about 4km from the start) seemed reasonably commonsensical, but I could imagine it being less so if visibility was poor. More careful nav took us from there to Glas Bheinn (paying attention not to drift right down towards Keils).

By the Glas Bheinn to Aonach Bheinn section, I was feeling pretty chirpy about the nav side of things, as the map and the land seemed to fit together and make sense (a rare occurrence for me). Helen's top tip to skirt beneath the top of Aonach Bheinn took us onto a good line down into the valley (over pretty rough terrain) and towards Beinn a Chaolais, the first pap.

The unexpectedly good weather and visibility meant that Helen had been able to point out our desired line of ascent during our approach. "We're heading for that green bit!" (pointing at an expanse of green with a greener bit of greenery). Other defining markers around the route, that miraculously made sense at the time, included "that patch of vegetation" (on a hill patched with vegetation), "that heathery bit" (on a generally heather slope) and "the scree alien with wobbly legs".

"We're going to head for the green bit, then the heathery patch"

So, we made it slowly by surely to the top of Pap 1, and I really started to think "This is fine! Tough on the quads but quite doable." Until the descent. One of the striking things about Jura is the weird effect it has on perspective. From the top of the paps, the valleys below look smooth and grassy, a doddle to run around, far removed from the tussocky boggy reality. Likewise, the scree slopes of the paps look from a distance like they've been dipped in grey sugar - uniformly granular and steep but runnable. In reality those "grains of grey sugar" are boulders and rocks, ranging from football to sheep-sized, with the occasional stretch of "runnable scree" (which is more like apple-sized stones, not the luxurious stuff I'm used to on Carnethy).

We had a peek at the trods either side of the summit of pap 1, and chose the less steep looking option. In retrospect this might have been sub-optimal. The next half an hour or so is a bit of a blur. I've basically blotted out the buttock-clenching, adrenaline-soaked detail. The first moment of terror came as we traversed around approximately eastwards. I'd been concentrating on picking my way down the ginormous boulders, and realised that I was balancing on what suddenly felt like a very precarious shelf. I couldn't stop visualing me dislodging a lower boulder and unleashing a cascade of rocks on top of me. Helen cheerily toddled onwards oblivious to my paralysing fear. "Um Helen!!" I piped up, "I'm, er..a bit scared!" Helen, unfazed by her companion's sudden onset of wimpiness, toddled back again and guided me rock by precarious rock onto more stable ground.

Having barely recovered from this near-death experience, we moved round to a bit that has grown in my memory into a huge precipice, giving way to a deadly chasm. It *might* not have been quite that dramatic in reality, but prolonged hyperventilation tends to distort reality. Again Helen (who is, frankly, a marvel in a crisis), guided me through it, and as far as I remember didn't even have to resort to slapping. Things improved slightly on the descent after this point. Near-certain death, was downgraded to near-certain loss of limb as a I sloooooowly picked my way over the boulder field to the base. I had to adopt a reverse crab position for much of it, as well as using my bottom as a fifth point of contact.

There seems to be a creepy black bird in most of the photos. I've dubbed it The Death Hawk.

I suppose it *might* just be a speck of grit on the lens. <doubtful>

I was kind of shell-shocked by the time I reached the base. It is completely unfathomable to me that people run over that shit. You might as well tell me they run over the water from Tayvallich to Craighouse. It's impossible. It took my five points of contact a full HOUR to make the descent.

I had to gird my loins to tackle the ascent up Beinn an Oir, and I'd be lying if I claimed I managed it without more fearful whimpering. The slope was so very steep in places and the trods (where they existed) were so very narrow. There was more trembly boulder-climbing until we reached the fabled Patch of Vegetation. At this point, the route resumed an element of enjoyment. Oh, apart from the short ridge at the summit, where I had to assume a crawling position. Hats off to Helen for neither pointing and laughing, nor leaving me to fend for my cowardly myself in a fit of exasperation.

<time passes>

Beinn an Oir

I think this might have been a crawling moment.

<much more time passes>

It's getting late, and we've been out for about 8 hours by this point. We could cut through the valley towards the road, but buoyed by not having died on two paps, and (if I'm completely honest) acknowledging on some level that I might not have the nerve to return to this course, I felt the need to bag Beinn Shiantaidh (pap 3). I got a scariness prediction from Helen, and apparently it was likely to score low on the scale of 1 to catastrophic loss of sphincter control. So, up we went, and indeed it wasn't too bad. Perhaps I had become desensitised. The route off required a bit of care around the navigation, and felt like we were doubling back on ourselves (this was to avoid the crags on the north east face of the hill, which I can only assume are unimaginably terrifying). After more scree, we hit a decent trod and galloped down (shoes rattling with gravel) to the valley floor.

I swear this photo doesn't do justice to the sheer extent of stone.

I was more than happy to skip Corra Bheinn, so we trogged (for a surprisingly long time) across to the woodland by the road. It was tussocky and tiring and the deceptively dry-looking long grass unpredictably gave way to man-eating bogs. A final hurdle over a deer fence into someone's garden, and we were at long last on tarmac with a mile and a half walk back to the hotel, its warm lights enticing us as dusk fell. Helen (Wise by name and nature) had phoned ahead to order fish and chips before the kitchen closed. Chilly and ravenous, I couldn't imagine a better meal.

After a cosy night in my new ultra-light sleeping bag (more squee-ing) we lounged around on Sunday, hobbling and ooh-aaahh-ing up and down the steps to the hotel, until Nicol pitched up in the restaurant and feigned horror at the prospect of Helen returning to Jura for the SIPR. After a chat with Nicol it transpired that I was unlikely to get back to Jura with my entourage for the actual race, and I was obviously totally relieved gutted.

Helen magicked the tent away and we sallied forth to the jetty only to see Nicol disappearing at about 4.58 with the 5.00 ferry. OMFG. I'm guessing it was a jape to see our panic-stricken faces as we lurched with Papped legs to the pick up point. Nice one Nicol. Grrrr.

So, it was an adventure, and one day I might have developed the necessary cojones to tackle the race. I think I'll be back again next year, at least for another recce, and out of curiosity to see if it really was as perilous as I remember. Mahoooosive thanks to Helen for sherpa-ing, soothing, and generally being funny and wise. Hope you're having a fab SIPR marshalling adventure this weekend :-)

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